Will ‘Point & Find’ Get Nokia Back in the Game?

There’s a long NY Times article that discusses the current competitive predicament of Nokia, the leading handset maker in the world. At the high end the OEM is losing the battle against the RIM, Android and the iPhone. Of course Apple and Nokia have recently sued each other. Nokia sued Apple after not being able to gain licensing deals (and access to Apple IP) on its terms; Apple counter sued saying, in paragraph 3 of the cross-complaint:

In dealing with Apple, Nokia has sought to gain an unjust competitive advantage over Apple by charging unwarranted fees to use patents that alleged cover industry compatibility standards and by seeking to obtain access to Apple’s intellectual property. Nokia needs access to Apple’s intellectual proety because Nokia has copied and is now using that patented technology.

While the company still maintains control of 37% of the global handset market, that share will continue to decline as more users adopt smartphones and Nokia offers weak handsets at the high end. The company maintains that its devices are more advanced than the iPhone but that it misjudged the market. In a statement that sounds very much like a rationalization (and one that’s factually inaccurate to boot) Nokia’s Anssi Vanjoki tells the NY Times:

“We didn’t execute; we were aiming at too geeky a community,” he says. “Apple is made for the common man. It’s more for Joe Six-Pack than techno-geeks. But we understand Joe Six-Pack too.”

I’ve argued in the past that to gain re-entry to the US market, Nokia should make high-functioning cheap devices for those people transitioning from the lowest end of the handset market. It can then re-establish the brand as it brings out better smartphones. Next year is supposed to see a refresh of the Symbian UI and UX; however there are doubts about whether the OS can compete long term with the iPhone OS and Android. 

There has been repeated speculation about whether Nokia was going to abandon Symbian in favor of Maemo. But recently Nokia said it was still very committed to Symbian. It issued the following statement about how it sees the two in its portfolio:

“While it is our policy not to disclose details of our product roadmap, we’d like to explicitly communicate that we remain firmly committed to Symbian as our smartphone platform of choice. Any speculation on what our 2012 roadmap, including operating systems and product branding, are completely premature.

As we have stated earlier, Nokia has multiple platforms to serve different purposes and address different markets. Symbian is more successful than ever in bringing smartphones to the masses. Maemo is our software of choice for devices based on technology that you’d typically find inside a desktop computer. It delivers a different user experience and enables us to widen the market we can address.”

Nokia, whose brand is strong outside the US but weak inside, must do some practical and splashy things to revitalize. One of those could be “Point & Find.” Announced at the CTIA trade show in April, it’s a visual search technology that uses the camera to obtain information by taking pictures of objects, images and places in the physical world. Conceptually this is identical to what Google demonstrated with Google Goggles

There are a range of companies that offer similar technology or “visual search” capabilities but only handset OEMs such as Nokia or Apple, or major Internet companies such as Google and Amazon, have the power and visibility to drive mainstream adoption. But the strategy that Nokia is pursuing with Point & Find may limit adoption: it relies on third parties to buy in/implement and it’s charging them to become a part of the program. 

Point & Find is a next-generation capability that could generate excitement around Nokia handsets but it needs to be pushed aggressively. Nokia should go buy up all the “visual search” companies out there and make that experience a centerpiece of a new UX on its handsets. You can’t beat Apple by trying to play the iPhone game; you need to change the rules.

Point & Find would be largely differentiated from everything else (especially if the company could do this aggressively across its product lines). In addition, given the installed base of Nokia users it could create an entire ecosystem around Point & Find that could rival the iPhone app store in one way of thinking. However I’m not sure that Nokia sees the opportunity clearly.