Nokia's quiet comeback
Who is the biggest noise in the mobile world? In what looked like a moment of hubris during his iPad keynote on Wednesday, Steve Jobs claimed it was Apple.
That raised eyebrows, because Apple has a tiny share of the mobile phone market, compared with Nokia. It may have reached around 2% by now, while Nokia has for many years had between 30 and 40% of the market. Ah, but Mr Jobs was talking about more than phones, he was chucking in laptops and iPods in his campaign to convince us that Apple is now a mobile business - and the biggest in the world.
But then came the latest figures from the Finnish company. Nokia's fourth-quarter figures appear to show that the wounded mammoth of the mobile world has come charging back. Revenues were still down on the previous year - most of the mobile industry will want to forget 2009 - but both sales and profits leaped ahead compared with the previous quarter. So sales were up 22% and profits almost doubled. More significantly, its share of the entire mobile-phone market was up at 39%, just short of its target of 40%.
Ah, the sceptics argue, but Nokia is losing out on the new frontier of the mobile market, the smartphone, where Apple's iPhone is carrying all before it. Not according to these latest Nokia numbers - its share of what it calls the "converged mobile device" market has leaped to 40%, up from 35% last quarter. Here's what Nokia's earnings statement says:
"Of the total industry mobile device volumes, converged mobile device industry volumes in the fourth quarter 2009 increased to 52.4 million units, based on Nokia's estimate, compared with an estimated 47.0 million units in the third quarter 2009. Our own converged mobile device volumes, comprising our smartphones and mobile computers, were 20.8 million units in the fourth quarter 2009."
So around 21 million smartphones in a quarter - as many as Apple might hope to sell in a year. Also note that mention of "mobile computers" in this category - Nokia is trying to point out, ever so quietly, that it's already in that new category described by Steve Jobs on Wednesday.
I've not yet had a look at it, but a number of people have told me that the N900 is pretty impressive. It's sold by retailers as a smartphone - but Nokia describes it as "a powerful touch-screen computer with excellent communications capabilities." it's obviously rather a different beast from the iPad, but its existence shows that Nokia does not want to be caught out again by the arrival of an innovative device which shapes a new market, as the iPhone did.
And we've been here before. I've visited Nokia headquarters in Helsinki a couple of times, the first in 2000 when the company seemed to have a total grip on the future of mobile communications, explaining to the world that we would soon be using our phones for all sorts of outlandish things such as sending photos to friends from the pub.
My second visit was in 2004 when the company appeared to have lost its grip. That was because it had failed to spot a key design trend - the fad for clamshell phones, which Motorola and Samsung pioneered, grabbing some of Nokia's market share. So confident had the Finns been that they were the "thought leaders" in mobile design that they had dismissed clamshells as a temporary fad. That turned out to be true - but in the period they were popular, Nokia lost out.
Nokia soon put that right, and began to build towards that 40% market share which has always been its target - quite an extraordinary ambition when you think of the size of the global mobile phone industry.
Then it was caught out again by another trend - touch-screen - pioneered by another company. So there is a pattern developing - Nokia is still the leader in technological innovation in the mobile industry, but others are showing more foresight in understanding exactly what customers will want next.
But let's get back to where we started: Steve Jobs' assertion that Apple is king of the mobile world.
He based that on its quarterly revenue of $15.68bn - which, of course, includes desktop computers as well as all those mobile laptops and iPods. Now let's look at Nokia's quarterly sales - which, to be fair, include its Nokia Siemens network business as well as mobile phones. The sum total is 11,988 billion euros - when you translate that into dollars at today's exchange rate, it turns out at $16.7bn. For now at least, Nokia still rules the mobile roost.
Oh, and by the way, thank you to those readers of this blog who suggested that Nokia deserved some attention here. You were right.