Ina Fried

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Nokia’s Microsoft Partnership: Does the New Strategy Add Up?

Nokia has already announced the key piece of its strategy–a shift to Windows Phone for future smartphones. Now the company is set to talk about the financial implications of that and go through the rest of its strategy, which includes a mix of Symbian and even a dash of MeeGo.

The investor event is scheduled to start shortly and due to run until about 2 pm London time. Mobilized will have live coverage, providing our battery holds out. I’ll try to mention only the high points, however. Mobilized loves numbers, but it is awfully early for a whole lot of financial speak, especially for the U.S. insomniacs tuning in.

12:02 pm: Still waiting for things to get going. But if you really want something to do, we have plenty of earlier coverage, including the press conference and the YouTube video of Microsoft CEO Steve Ballmer and Nokia CEO Stephen Elop, as well as a chat with Elop on how he made his big decision.

12:05 pm: Okay, things are getting going as Elop takes the stage (the same one as the earlier press conference.

12:06 pm: Elop is reviewing things. Lots of talk of both challenges and gems. If you read his memo, or anything else he’s said recently, you have heard this.

Battle of devices to war of ecosystems, etc. Mobilized has this part memorized.

12:09 pm: Smartphone strategy is just one piece.

Reviewing the three alternatives that Elop considered–MeeGo, Android or some partnership with Microsoft.

As for Google, Elop says it is the case there are some advantages for that approach.

“There’s something happening there. There’s no denying that.”

However, Elop says the company was worried it would be late and be just one of many, and was not sure how it could leverage assets like its Navteq location-based services.

“Our sense was differentiation could be a pretty big challenge,” Elop says. “The risk for commoditization would increase dramatically.”

Feels profit would have eventually moved to Google, with handsets becoming a commodity.

“It felt a little bit like giving up and not enough like fighting back,” Elop says.

12:12 pm: As for Microsoft, Elop says both companies are bringing something to the table.

As expected, Elop is characterizing this as more strategic than just taking a license to Windows Phone. Talking about Nokia services like mapping, local advertising and other things that Nokia can bring to the table.

“It’s far more interesting than a simple licensing deal,” Elop says. This was the only strategy that makes it a three horse race with Google and Apple.

Elop says he is convinced that Nokia will be able to differentiate within the Windows Phone ecosystem on a sustainable basis.

12:15 pm: There were some challenges and potential disadvantages, he acknowledges.

Top among these is the fact that Windows Phone 7 is new on the market.

“It’s early,” he says. “Will it succeed?”

12:17 pm: Also, there is the issue of being locked in or a lack of control. Elop does not disclose terms but says the company has flexibility and “substantial control” over the future of the ecosystem.

“This is not your mother’s OEM deal with Microsoft,” Elop says.

12:17 pm: Elop says the deal is at the “term sheet” stage, noting that the companies have yet to sign the “definitive agreement.”

12:18 pm: Already the engineers are working through, and Elop says this deal will allow Nokia to move far faster than it has in recent years.

12:18 pm: He’s also making the cost-saving argument, saying Nokia can focus its investment, which he acknowledges hasn’t been getting the return it should.

Elop earlier acknowledged that the company expects significant cost savings from the move as well as substantial workforce reductions.

“Bottom line: Products that are more competitive,” he says.

12:22 pm: Operators are excited by a third viable option, Elop says.

“A two-horse race is not a satisfactory [situation] for operators,” Elop says.

Elop says that Microsoft-Nokia will be operator-friendly, as compared with Google and Apple.

12:24 pm: Elop talking about differentiation–a key concern of analysts and investors.

Elop talks about Windows Phone as offering differentiation form Apple and Google, but also insisting that Nokia has the assets and business terms it needs to stand out from other Windows Phones. He focuses on camera technologies and “unique relationship.”

Stresses again that this is not a standard handset maker agreement. But he also says that just because Nokia can change lots of things within Windows Phone, doesn’t mean it should.

Nokia, he says, must “resist the temptation to customize just for the sake of customization.”

12:27 pm: Now talking about Symbian. For those that missed it, Elop reiterates this is a transition strategy, but adds that the company still expects to sell 150 million more Symbian devices before that transition is complete.

12:29 pm: Strategy is more than just smartphones. He wants the company to be a leading force in connecting the next billion people to the Internet via phones in emerging markets. “The market for feature phones is pushing down the price curve and that is an opportunity for Nokia.”

Nokia will do incremental work in that area–things like Nokia Money for people that don’t have a bank account or telephone. Another, Nokia Life Tools, helps connect, say, farmers to market information.

This area is still a target for innovation, he says, but it also faces competition from Chinese-made phones based on MediaTek chipsets.

Elop says that the company must also plan for the future so that it can be disruptive down the road. “As they say in Finland, it is time to shoot ahead of the duck,” he says.

That’s where MeeGo comes in–the mobile version of Linux that until recently was seen as Nokia’s future. Nokia said that team will ship a phone later this year and then see where the future is headed.

12:35 pm: Want to point out this New York Times article that said both Google and Microsoft were offering hundreds of millions of dollars in engineering and marketing support in order to woo Nokia.

12:36 pm: Elop now talking about cost cuts, including significant job reductions.

“We are not announcing how many and in what country,” Elop says, but adds that the company wants to move quickly on that front.

He says that he has made changes to the business to ensure speed, including leadership structure changes aimed at ensuring accountability. “If things go well today, I’ll be the CEO.”

Of note, the two of the three business unit leaders are women–Mary McDowell, who will lead lower-end phones, and Jo Harlow, who will head the smartphone business.

12:40 pm: Nokia looking for a new leader for its services and developer division. The acting head is Tero Ojanpera, but he will soon be looking for other opportunities within Nokia, Elop says.

Also of note, Louise Pentland, who is head of the legal and intellectual property unit, is being elevated to the top leadership team.

“We have one of the strongest patent portfolios out there” he says, adding that he would encourage all players to take a license to said patents. (hear that, Apple?)

New leader of North American sales unit to be named in coming days.

“We are creating a different industry,” Elop says in closing his introductory remarks.

12:44 pm: Elop Brings on CFO Timo Ihamuotila to go through the numbers.

12:46 pm: Ihamuotila acknowledged Nokia didn’t meet the targets it had set out to achieve at its last financial analyst day.

“Our execution did not cut it.” he says.

12:49 pm: Ah, Now on to the good stuff. CFO talking financial impact from Microsoft deal. Says should be good over the long term.

Slide shows royalty payments to Microsoft causing lower gross margins, but says sales and marketing support from Microsoft should lower operating expenses.

“We will receive substantial go-to market support from Microsoft,” he says, without giving numbers.

12:52 pm: Ihamuotila talking now about the company’s long-term targets for devices and services period “after the transition period.”

Device sales to grow faster than the market, with operating margins of 10 percent or more–but this is only after the transition period, which the company has said could last this year and next.

Significant uncertainties in this period.

Ihamuotila shows a slide showing Symbian sales slowly giving way to Windows Phone with lower-end mobile phones remaining about half of sales.

12:57 pm: Ihamuotila shows chart of how it expects to cut R&D with the company investing less in services, more in entry-level phones and far less on MeeGo, though still some. The investment in Symbian will be replaced by a far lower investment in Windows Phone R&D. Overall, R&D should be a fraction of what it was.

1:02 pm: Over long term, Ihamuotila says that the Microsoft deal should help significantly boost the company’s Navteq navigation business.

“We think this new strategy is the best way to maximize long-term value, both to our shareholders and to other stakeholders,” Ihamuotila says.

On to Q&A for financial analysts.

1:03 pm: Question on how Nokia will keep employees motivated, something else and when to expect the first Windows Phone.

“Thanks for the one question” Elop quips, before addressing them in turn.

Elop says that the key is on focused innovation so they see the fresh opportunities (at least for the ones who don’t get cut by the large workforce reductions also promised).

He also pointed to his sharply worded memo, which he said was designed to convey the message that “Here is the truth, we’re making decisions and we’re moving forward.”

Won’t give date on first Windows Phone, but says again that the move will allow a substantially faster pace than the company was on with Symbian.

1:07 pm: Elop is asked about some of the challenges with Microsoft and Nokia each responsible for different pieces of software and services, as opposed to Google and Apple, where things are more integrated.

“We wanted to drive operational simplicity,” Elop says, adding that the companies talked about other arrangements, though not a full-on acquisition. The companies, Elop says, decided not to go with the operational complexity of a joint venture.

1:10 pm: Elop says Nokia has opportunities to differentiate from other Windows Phone devices, but adds it is in Nokia’s interest for there to be other strong handset players supporting Windows Phone.

“We’ve got to make Windows Phone successful,” he says.

Nokia’s mapping technology, he says, will benefit rivals like Samsung and HTC. “We’re willing to make those trades,” Elop says.

1:11 pm: Elop is asked why he feels comfortable with a “bet the farm” strategy on Microsoft, a company he clearly knows well.

Elop points out that it was harder to see how Microsoft would rapidly be successful without someone like Nokia.

“But this is now different,” he says, adding that this is now an ecosystem that Microsoft and Nokia are jointly helping to build.

Mapping and local advertising were not part of the ecosystem before the Nokia-Microsoft partnership.

As for impact of the transition, it’s hard to say, Elop says. Symbian is strong in some places where Apple and Google are present today.

1:14 pm: Asked whether Nokia will remain profitable during the transition. “It’s hard to say financially, and I am not going to provide any further specific guidance.”

1:17 pm: Elop won’t say when the first Windows Phone will ship, but lots and lots by next year at various price points.

“We’ll be shipping in volume in 2012,” he says.

1:20 pm: Another two-parter! 1) Why will Symbian be supported if it is transitioning away? 2) Why does Nokia think it will be able to have double-digit operating margins using someone else’s platform?

Elop: They recognize Symbian is key to Nokia being able to transition, but he agrees that consumers will have to want the Symbian phones Nokia builds. CFO also notes that less than half of Symbian phones are sold through carriers.

As for question on margins, CFO says the company has opportunities for higher margins around services and advertising.

1:23 pm: Asked about how the company is confident Windows Phone can get to lower prices, Elop says that was a key consideration, down to which chipsets will be supported, etc.

Between the two companies there was a lot of work to get a high degree of confidence.

“That was a critical evaluation,” he says.

That said, Elop agrees there is a smartphone market below Windows Phone that Nokia will manage with an evolution of today’s Series 30 and Series 40 operating systems.

1:31 pm: Elop: Some of the hardware designs that would have run MeeGo or Symbian will be repurposed for Windows Phone. Some devices may come out with similar models for both Windows Phone and Symbian.

1:32 pm: Question again on who pays whom in Microsoft-Nokia. Is there a lump payment from Microsoft?

Elop doesn’t answer and instead refers to slide that shows opportunities on both sides. Saying value going both ways. As for Microsoft’s payments, “That is a significant part of the conversation,” Elop says.

1:35 pm: Two good questions: Can Windows Phone be put on any current devices? What happens to QT development layer that Nokia bought and had sought to unify developer approach?

Elop: It’s not as simple as plugging in and downloading on to current phones, though some technologies can be repurposed.

QT continues to be the development for Symbian and lone MeeGo device. Also could have a role on low-end devices.

However, Elop says, “We are not proposing a QT on Windows Phone” approach. Adding another development environment could fork the ecosystem, which is not good for Nokia or Windows Phone, he says. Development environment for Windows Phone will be Silverlight and XNA–Microsoft’s current tools.

1:38 pm: Asked about branding, he says in some cases you will see both Microsoft and Nokia brands. Examples could include Nokia Search powered by Bing or Bing maps powered by Nokia, though he says those are examples and not final choices.

1:39 pm: Asking about tablets, questioner points out that Nokia had an early lead in tablets, but Apple “stole the show.”

“We are not announcing today a specific tablet strategy,” he reiterates, saying that Microsoft creates opportunities.

Elop notes that there are rumors of Windows Phone and Windows that could power tablets.

“We could do that,” he says. “We might do that.”

Also an opportunity for Nokia to step back into the game using its own software.

1:41 pm: Elop wrapping up.

“We have set a new course for Nokia,” he says, adding that despite what has been written, Nokia is still an incredibly powerful company, though perhaps not in North America. “Today we are diving forward” he says. “We have a strong partner in Microsoft who is incented as are we in making this successful.”

Investor guy closes by reminding there were forward-looking statements. He’s still going as people leave the room.

COMPLETE COVERAGE:


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