Ina Fried

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The Chat I Had With Stephen Elop as We Both Nearly Missed Final Ballmer-Note

As I noted in my liveblog of Steve Ballmer’s CES keynote, I barely made it in, as the speech was packed.

That they almost didn’t let in a reporter running late is hardly noteworthy. However, also initially rebuffed was the guy I was with — Nokia CEO Stephen Elop. I even managed to snap this fun photo of the former Microsoft division head being turned away:

You’d think Microsoft would have wanted to make sure that their No. 1 Windows Phone partner was front and center — if not on stage — for the speech. That’s doubly true, considering Nokia’s phone was one of the few bits of news Microsoft was making that day.

That said, Elop and I both made it in, eventually. I called someone, but I am quite sure Elop might have been able to pull a string or two, if he wanted to. But, to his immense credit, he didn’t once turn to anyone — as many executives would have — and bellow, “Don’t you know who I am?”

Anyway, that’s the fun cocktail story. Here’s what Elop had to say during our interview:

First off, he said that the Lumia 900, introduced at the show, reflects Nokia’s commitment to designing products specifically for North America. He wouldn’t rule out the large-screen Windows Phone shipping elsewhere, but said its LTE radio and big screen were things that the company knew were needed in the U.S.

“The operators, particularly AT&T and Verizon, are competing on the basis of their new 4G networks,” Elop said.

But, no, I couldn’t get him to say when it would ship, or what it will cost.

“We’re not quite ready to provide the exact date or the exact pricing,” he said. “We clearly intend to be quite aggressive (on price).”

But, he said, the important thing is that the devices are in good shape.

“There are real devices,” Elop said, noting that he has been carrying one of the phones for a while. Elop and Nokia staffers have been using the Lumia 900 devices for a bit now, but have cloaked them to avoid letting the new design leak out. “Now we can take off the rubber devices we’ve all been using, to use the devices in public.”

One of the key next steps, obviously, will be transitioning from a period in which the company wanted to keep the Lumia 900 device a closely guarded secret to one in which it wants other people to discover it.

“The first obstacle — and this is one I think that we’ve nailed — is the product has to be great,” Elop said. “Someone had to do their best work for this platform and that’s clearly what we signed up for.”

Elop said the device packs Nokia’s best screen, best camera and best design.

The next step, Elop said, is getting the devices in the hands of the sales staff — at the AT&T stores and other retailers — who will decide whether to pitch that or another high-end smartphone.

“You have to seed the market with devices,” Elop said. “You have to put the devices in the hands of people. With our launches, to date, around the world, we have seeded more devices than we ever have done by far as Nokia — tens of thousands of devices, in the hands of store managers and sales associates.”

So would Nokia consider opening stores in the U.S.? Elop didn’t rule it out, but he noted that given the role of carriers here, it is probably less critical than in places where devices are sold unsubsidized for use with any carrier.

“Particularly in a market like the U.S., being in close collaboration with AT&T, for example, is, I think, our strongest step forward,” Elop said. “That will remain, in the U.S. market, our principal approach.”

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There was a worry before I started this that I was going to burn every bridge I had. But I realize now that there are some bridges that are worth burning.

— Valleywag editor Sam Biddle