Opinion: Nokia brings a Lumia 710 to a gunfight

All eyes are on Nokia right now. Last Thursday, it announced the official launch of the Lumia 710 on T-Mobile — the first Windows Phone 7 smartphone it will release in the U.S.

Back in October, I had the lovely opportunity to play with prototypes of the Lumia 800 and the Lumia 710. As I said in my hands-on and review, the Lumia 800 is a handsome piece of polycarbonate, whereas the Lumia 710 was really just a poor man's version and a lower 5-megapixel camera instead of an 8-megapixel one.

Nokia might not be a huge player in the U.S., but it's still a global one that still sells lots of cellphones in Europe and Asia; the company still knows a thing or two about making phones. Choosing Windows Phone 7 to be its smartphone OS of choice moving forward was surprising indeed.

Now that we've had enough time to let that fact sink it, can Nokia re-enter the U.S. and become a dominant force once again? Can it stare down the mountains of iPhones and Androids and claim a stake on the pedestal?

I'm not saying it has no chance at that, but it certainly doesn't look like Nokia's going into this with a huge bang.

Shaky Landing

I'm not the biggest fan of Windows Phone 7, but I admire Microsoft's courage to finally wake up and start fresh. Deciding to ditch the aging Windows Mobile wasn't easy. Looking at its MetroUI alone, it's easy to come off with the impression that Windows Phone 7 is a sleek and wonderfully animated OS.

The OS feels like something from the future (which is probably why Microsoft is slapping MetroUI on Windows 8 and Xbox 360).

From a mass consumer perspective, Windows Phone 7 is at the bottom of the heap when it comes to desirability. Most people looking for a smartphone are really considering two options: Android and iOS; Windows Phone 7 isn't even on their radar.

Why isn't Windows Phone 7 showing up as a blip? Windows Phone 7 commands a measly 1.5 percent of the smartphone market share pie according to Gartner and it launched three years later than the competition, which let Android and iOS capture the market swiftly.

That said, Nokia has a real good chance to turn Windows Phone 7's perception troubles around. It can bring its awesome design chops to the table and marry them with the fresh feel of Windows Phone 7. In fact, it already has just the right phone: the Lumia 800, but it decides to give us its cheaper brother the Lumia 710, for some reason.

Being the late comer to the party, Windows Phone 7 can't afford to look like an OS that's still playing catch-up; like a contender that's just picking up the rear. It needs to come out with both arms swinging. Nokia is supposed to supply the gun and Microsoft the ammo.

It's All About Premium

People want premium products at affordable prices. Most would agree that an iPhone or decent Android smartphone is pretty affordable nowadays. At its height, the iPhone 3GS was a premium smartphone that cost $200. It's now free $1. Combined with the latest iOS 5, it's still holding its own against the newest phones.

The Lumia 710 looks like a child's toy. Other than parents buying these for their kids because it's only $50, I don't know what adult would want this. If I were to randomly hold the Lumia 710 out and ask people how much they think it's worth, the answer would be a resounding "free." On the other hand, the Lumia 800 just oozes of premium goodness all on its own; it's self explanatory, like the iPhone or a Galaxy Nexus.

Nokia's not incapable of designing premium hardware (go look at that fancy polycarbonate dye in the Lumia 800), so why is it trying to sell us a stiff piece of plastic? Where are the premium metals or plastic? Where are the sleek trims? Where is all the stuff that force tech reviewers to call have no choice but to whip out the "sexy gadget" card?

The Lumia 800 is already out in Europe. Why didn't Nokia relaunch with that phone? It has sex appeal. It feels great in the hand. It has a bright visible display. It has a fast camera. It can sit with an iPhone 4S and Galaxy Nexus without looking out of place. We want an iPhone alternative that doesn't look like an HTC or Samsung. Where's our Lumia 800?

T-Mobile The Right Carrier?

I don't know about you, but if I was a company trying to get the most bang for buck, launching on T-Mobile isn't the way to do it. Nokia should be making its big splash on AT&T and Verizon. Those are America's largest carriers and those are the networks building out their spectrum infrastructure with real 4G LTE. Those are the networks that matter the most right now and will matter the most down the road.

T-Mobile? T-Mobile is clouded in a smoke of uncertainty. With AT&T announcing that its not pursuing an acquisition of T-Mobile anymore (seriously, that deal had anti-trust and monopoly written all over it), "Old Magenta" is in a tough bind.

On one hand T-Mobile is the smallest of the four major U.S. carriers. It has the least amount of customers, and because it didn't secure the iPhone, it's losing tons of customers at an alarming rate — fast. That said, trying to win over all the passengers jumping from the SS T-Mobile is going to be a tough battle for Nokia.

On the other hand, both Windows Phone 7, Nokia and T-Mobile are the underdogs of the U.S. mobile market, so neither has much to lose. With Verizon practically in bed with Android and its DROID smartphones, AT&T milking out the iPhone and Sprint shouting from rooftops that its the only true unlimited network left, T-Mobile can reinvent itself starting with Windows Phone 7 and Nokia. If Nokia succeeds with its plans on T-Mobile, everybody wins.

It's Still Anybody's Game

Laid out, that's being hyper optimistic. The reality is much more complicated than that. Nokia choosing T-Mobile might have less to do with offering the best for customers as it has to do with corporate profits. Partnering with T-Mobile might be a stepping stone in its strategy to raise revenue to really break out on AT&T, Verizon and Sprint (there's rumors that Nokia's testing a 4G LTE-capable Lumia 800 on AT&T and Verizon). In the coming months Nokia's strategy should become clearer (CES should have some interesting news), but as it stands, Nokia's relaunch into the U.S. market last week with the Lumia 710 went by pretty silently.

I'd be damned if any of my friends even know that the Lumia 710 exists, or even what it is and they're just about the most geeky bunch I know. I'm positive my mom and dad don't. To them, a smartphone is still an Android or iPhone; a Samsung or HTC. What's a Nokia? Isn't that one of those old phones that you played Snake on? Oh, right, it was!

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