Nokia’s Jo Harlow Outlines the Game Plan for the Windows Phone Transition

Published on March 1, 2011
by Ina Fried

As a former captain of the Duke women’s basketball team, Nokia’s Jo Harlow certainly knows pressure. However, Harlow is facing a whole new kind of intensity in the coming months as she serves as the point person overseeing the Finnish cell phone maker’s shift to Windows Phone 7.

Although Nokia hasn’t publicly committed to shipping a Windows Phone device this year, CEO Stephen Elop has made it crystal clear to Harlow that is what is needed.

“I’m very clear on his expectations,” she said in a telephone interview from Finland the week of Nokia’s big announcement. “His expectations are certainly for 2011 to be the launch date.”

However, Harlow said that more important than the date is what Nokia can bring to the table in terms of features and quality.

And as massive as that task is, it’s not the only one facing Harlow. Even as she plots the move to Windows Phone 7, Harlow will also have to try to breathe life into Symbian, an operating system that, despite being end-of-lifed, will be critical to keeping the company in the smartphone business while it waits for its Windows Phone product line to get up to speed. The company has said it expects to sell another 150 million Symbian devices in the coming years. Even with that, Nokia has indicated that it is in for rough times financially both this year and next.

“We have to continue to make Symbian competitive,” Harlow said, adding that will include improving the operating system’s user interface and the hardware that it runs on, not to mention trying to keep all of the operating system’s developers from abandoning ship.

In addition to managing the product transitions, Harlow is also faced with overseeing a big shift in how the company works.

“This is a significant change to our culture of being able to do things ourselves,” Harlow said, adding that its newfound partner has been, for many years, viewed as a competitor.

While Elop has put a largely happy face on the decision to embrace Windows Phone, Harlow admitted that the move, although necessary, was a tough pill to swallow. Even as the company evaluated external options such as Windows Phone and Android, many people were hopeful the company would find a strategy that would allow it to compete on its own.

“Coming to the conclusion that we didn’t believe that was possible was extremely painful,” Harlow said. That pain, is now being shared by the company’s full workforce, she said, adding that she was not at all surprised with the outcry that followed the company’s decision.

“If I were in their shoes, with the amount of information and time (they had), I would feel very uncertain, very concerned,” she said.

Having had more time to digest the move, and get to know Microsoft, Harlow said she has been impressed with the company’s commitment to mobile and the speed with which it is evolving.

Harlow admits the company missed out in the past few years as the center of the phone universe shifted to the U.S. from Europe and Asia.

“The U.S. has become the heartbeat of smartphones,” she said. “That sometimes is difficult to capture when all of your development from an experience perspective is happening elsewhere in the world.”

Although the company has a modest presence in Silicon Valley, much of its strategy and technical development has taken place in Europe. The products that the company attempted to bring to the U.S. attracted little interest from American cell phone carriers, leaving the company dependent on sales outside North America.

Even in those markets, Nokia has been losing ground as Android and the iPhone become increasingly strong.

Nonetheless, Harlow rejects the idea that Symbian sales will evaporate overnight in the wake of the decision to go with Windows Phone 7. While tech enthusiasts follow every word on where the company is headed, many consumers make their decision based entirely on what they see on store shelves. And that, she said, will be a wide array of Nokia phones running Symbian.

“Millions of consumers are oblivious to the announcements that we have made,” she said. Those consumers value Nokia’s brand, she said, and will continue to by devices provided the company keeps making competitive products.

Harlow, who already spent a lot of time shuttling between Finland and the United Kingdom, where she headed Symbian development, says the travel schedule will increase as she adds more stops in Seattle.

“I hope BA (British Airways) has a frequent flier card up to the challenge,” she said.

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