Windows open on Nokia's new dawn

The biggest mobile manufacturers in the world are racing to release what they hope will be this year's best-selling model. For at least one company, Nokia, the stakes are high as the struggling mobile phone giant battles for survival.

Kevin Shields, Nokia's senior vice president, walks through the features of the Nokia Lumia 920. AP Images
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NEW YORK CITY // The biggest mobile manufacturers in the world are racing to release what they hope will be this year's best-selling model.

For at least one company, Nokia, the stakes are high as the struggling mobile phone giant battles for survival.

At flashy events held simultaneously in New York City and Helsinki this week, Nokia unveiled its latest line of sharpshooting Lumia mobiles, the 820 and 920.

Both phones can wirelessly refuel when plopped atop a charging pad as well as access maps of the Emirates and other countries even when they are not connected to the Web.

The most significant news for customers in the Middle East and Africa (Mea), however, is Nokia's mobiles will feature new Windows Phone 8 software from Microsoft, making it possible for the first time to easily view content in Arabic.

"It's a new dawn for the company," says Tom Farrell, the vice president of Nokia Middle East.

"From a regional perspective, Nokia is currently embarking on a journey of executing its winning smartphone strategy by delivering the latest Lumia range with Arabic language support, strong operator offerings and market-beating local content in terms of apps."

The company would not release regional details about the price or availability of its phones, although "the Middle East market is a priority", says Sally Hamandi, the communications manager for Nokia in the lower Arabian Gulf.

But the company risks losing steam with its announcement amid a flurry of other releases.

Google's Motorola Mobility unveiled three new smartphones this week under its Razr brand. These feature larger screens than the iPhone and can download online content faster than Motorola's predecessors.

Last week, Samsung took the wraps off the Galaxy Note 2, an updated version of its popular tablet phone. The South Korean technology giant is now the biggest mobile maker in the world, having knocked Nokia off the top spot for the first time in 14 years during the first quarter.

Then there is the industry's most anticipated announcement - about the newest iPhone - expected from Apple next week.

Nokia desperately wants a comeback, or, rather, it needs one. The 147-year-old handset maker, which started as a wood-pulp mill along the Nokianvirta river in south-west Finland, grew with business interests in rubber production, forestry, cable, power and, of course, electronics.

But its reputation as a fast-moving, innovative engine in the mobile sector has taken a beating of late.

Last year, it finally called it quits with its own operating system, Symbian, in favour of a partnership with Microsoft, in which the former would design handsome handsets and the latter would dress it up with sleek Windows software.

This digital union may prove to be profitable, although Nokia should have "invested in an alternative operating system sooner", says Carolina Milanesi, a research vice president for consumer technologies at Gartner.

Globally, Nokia's sales have dropped from 97.8 million models during the second quarter last year to 83.4 million in the same period this year, according to Gartner. Earnings fell from a dismal net loss of €368 million (Dh1.7 billion) to a dire deficit of €1.41bn during the same period.

To slow the financial bleeding, Nokia plans to cut 10,000 jobs worldwide by the end of next year.

In the Mea region, certain market missteps have only made it harder for Nokia to regain its foothold.

The company delayed the release of its Lumia handsets last year while waiting for Microsoft to roll out software compatible in Arabic.

That never happened, so Nokia quietly rolled out the products anyway. But sales in the Mea area slid 33 per cent this second quarter compared with a year earlier.

"Nokia obviously has lost out in the Mea region because they didn't launch the Windows Phone devices earlier," says Ashish Panjabi, the chief operating officer for Jacky's Electronics in the UAE, who attended Nokia's product unveiling in Finland.

Another regional issue is that "not many" of Nokia's apps are available in Arabic, acknowledges Ms Hamandi. Yet even weaker competitors have moved into this space. BlackBerry's maker, Research In Motion (Rim), has 1,500 of its 60,000 apps available in Arabic.

"With over 300 million Arabic speakers, there is a huge gap in availability of Arabic content which we are working to help fill," says Sandeep Saihgal, RIM's managing director for the Middle East.

Executives at Nokia are hoping shoppers in the Mea region and elsewhere will want to customise their mobiles. This is why both their Lumia 820 and 920 models come in a rainbow of colours that can be swapped through exchangeable covers on the 820 - unlike "uninspiring, monochromatic smartphone slabs", says Kevin Shields, a senior vice president at Nokia, in a jab probably directed at Apple.

Consumers will have the final word, but some analysts and retailers say Nokia's prospects look promising.

"Nokia is back," says Mr Panjabi. "The key difference with Nokia is that Apple has been saying, 'Come to us;' Nokia is saying, 'we're coming to you.'"