Nokia’s tough acts to follow

The past few weeks have been an incredible time for smartphones. Apple launched its iPhone 4S, sticking with its successful iPhone 4 design and repeating a play that the company used before when it launched the 3GS as a follow-up to the 3G. The move bespoke a confidence in its approach, focusing efforts on where the company thinks it matters while resisting temptations such as a larger display or LTE.

And if the introduction of the iPhone 4S was classically Apple, what happened the following week was classically Android. Within 24 hours, two Android licensees announced bleeding-edged phones. The Motorola Droid RAZR packed LTE into a .71 mm splashproof, Kevlar-coated, stainless steel-supported profile. And the other side of the globe, Google and Samsung teamed up to reveal the first Ice Cream Sandwich phone, boating a 4.65” AMOLED display, NFC to enable Android Beam, and face recognition-based unlocking. Both handsets are headed toward Verizon, the high-end Android cup of which seems like it will overflow this holiday season.

And so have the smartphone wars roamed around the world — from Cupertino to New York to Hong Kong. And now on to London, where Nokia will reveal its first Windows Phones to the world. In some ways, the stage has been set perfectly for the handset maker. Windows Phone seeks to straddle the consistency of the the iPhone platform with the differentiation of having multiple licensees, although without their innovations being “chaotic” as Andy Leeds put it at the AsiaD conference yesterday. Here’ is the chance for Nokia to show how it can be aggressive versus Apple and restrained versus Android.

In doing so, will unveil its first efforts in what it has acknowledged is a double burden but also a unique opportunity – differentiating from all smartphones running other operating systems as well as differentiating from other smartphones running Windows Phone 7. I’m confident that the handsets will have a strong design (rumors that the device will have an N9-like look will certainly help differentiate) and strong optics. But I’m somewhat more interested in how Nokia has married its services to Microsoft’s. The perceived value in doing so was, according to Stephen Elop, one of the prime motivators for choosing Windows Phone over Android and will do far more to differentiate the Nokia Windows Phone experience than impressive – even iPhone 4S-beating – stills..

Of course, that integration may not be ready. And if not, it’s hardly doomsday for Nokia’s strategy. But it will make it harder for Nokia to assume its negotiated position as the innovation leader in Windows Phone.

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