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Exclusive: Nokia’s Stephen Elop Talks About How He Made His Big OS Decision

In weighing the future of Nokia, Stephen Elop has had some tough decisions to make, but at least he has lots of people willing to offer up their two cents.

Whether he is walking the halls of Nokia’s headquarters in Espoo, Finland, or even just buying groceries at the market, Nokia’s chief executive is constantly flooded with suggestions for how the company should regain lost ground.

Elop recalled being at dinner just over a week ago and being approached by three young people who wanted to share their suggestions.

“The three of them couldn’t quite agree on what the right strategy was, but they clearly each had an opinion,” Elop said.

For his part, Elop has deeply considered three possibilities for its high-end smartphone business–sticking with plans to develop around MeeGo (a mobile version of Linux), shifting to Android or adopting Microsoft’s Windows Phone.

Without tipping his hand, Elop spoke with Mobilized last week about the pros and cons of the various options. The interview came before releasing his big “burning platform” memo and literally as the final decision was being made.

For Elop, it came down to which approach would offer enough differentiation and yet would also be part of an ecosystem that would be large enough to attract developers, advertisers, carriers and all the other partners.

“It’s not just differentiation but sustainable differentiation,” Elop said. He also said that as big as Nokia is, it can’t afford to go it alone.

It is also critically important to Elop that the company be more competitive in the United States. Although the company ships more phones worldwide than any other company, its presence in North America is basically nonexistent. And yet, he said, the U.S. is where the pace is set for the high end of the market.

“We need to be in the United States in one way, shape or form,” Elop said. “We have to have a viable way to reopen doors.”

So where did that leave the various options?

Although MeeGo left plenty of room for differentiation, that option would also mean trying to be unique at the same time, as the company would have to convince others to build on the platform.

“For it to be a valid ecosystem, that also implies other [phone makers]–our competitors–would be attracted to it as well,” Elop said. “That’s one of the things that give it critical mass and credibility.”

Although Elop didn’t say so in our interview, his comments in this week’s memo suggest that his confidence there was low.

“We thought MeeGo would be a platform for winning high-end smartphones,” Elop said in his memo to staff. “However, at this rate, by the end of 2011, we might have only one MeeGo product in the market.”

As for Android and Windows Phone, Elop said Nokia could offer a significant boost to either ecosystem.

“Android is growing very nicely; it has significant market share,” he said. “The combination of Android’s existing market share plus the market share that Nokia could bring to the Android ecosystem is a very large number and would signal a very substantial shift in the dynamics of the mobile operating system market.”

As for Redmond’s operating system, Elop said it is early days.

“Windows Phone is in its early formative stages in terms of getting customer traction and so forth. It’s a beautiful product and I say that as someone who is competing with it.”

However, that may not be the case much longer. While Elop was still leaving all doors open when he spoke with Mobilized a week ago, the options appear to have narrowed significantly in recent days. His memo on Tuesday appeared to rule out MeeGo as the best option, while a tweet from Google’s Vic Gundotra suggests Android is out and a tie-up with WIndows Phone is Elop’s final choice.

But, no matter what decision gets made at the high end, Elop said that the company probably needs a separate strategy at the low end of the market, where there is intense competition from Chinese phone makers building phones around low-cost chips from MediaTek.

Friday’s investor meeting will also address other aspects of the company, including its services strategy, its plans for its Navteq navigation unit and its plans to leverage its huge patent portfolio. The announcement also comes just ahead of the cell phone industry’s big trade show, Mobile World Congress, which gets going on Sunday in Barcelona.

Mobilized is here in London and will have live coverage of the meeting, which kicks off at 11 am local time. That’s 3 am PT, so set those alarm clocks early.

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