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Why traders are wrong about Nokia (hint: they use iPhones)

By Christopher Mims
Published Last updated This article is more than 2 years old.

There are few things traders are worse at predicting than breakout products. The Sept. 5 announcement of Nokia’s new Windows 8-based smartphones, the Lumia 820 and 920, underwhelmed the markets, causing the already-troubled Finnish company’s stock to crater at one point 22% below its pre-announcement value.

Most of the coverage of Nokia’s announcement runs along similar lines—that the new phone did not “impress” investors. Nokia’s failure to announce either a specific launch date or a price appears to have done most of the damage. Brian White of Topeka Capital Markets called Nokia’s announcement a Hail Mary (i.e., desperate) attempt to get ahead of Apple’s September 12 reveal of the iPhone 5, but fundamentally the company’s current share price reflects a bet that the Nokia 920 smartphone will be a failure.

That would be a mistake. Investors are rarely astute predictors of the success or failure of a consumer product. There are two reasons to give Nokia a better prognosis: its capacity for innovation, and its market share in the places traders don’t think about.

According to some analysts, Apple’s stock is about to shoot through the roof. Yet early leaks of the iPhone 5 reveal a device that appears to be little more than a tweak on an already-winning formula. And that formula—from a clean and well-regulated app marketplace to tight integration between software and hardware—has now been reproduced in Nokia’s new line of phones.

More than reproduced: surpassed. The influential US tech blog Gizmodo says you’ll “really want” the Nokia Lumia 920, and it has a long list of iPhone-beating features, from wireless charging to Nokia’s proprietary “PureView” camera technology.

Nokia’s lead designer, Marko Ahtisaari, is not shy about his aspiration to out-design Apple, as he told Steven Levy, the author of two books on Apple:

“Our products are human,” he says. “They’re natural. They’re never cold. That’s partly driven by color, but also partly how they feel in the hand. This looks less like a product coming off a production line in a factory — though it does—than a product that might have grown on a tree. The grandest way I could put it, is post-industrial.”

The innovation is not just in the physical device, but continues at the level of the operating system (OS). The phones will carry Microsoft’s new Windows 8 software, in which desktop and phone versions are closely integrated and are designed to make it easy to build apps in HTML5, the rising new standard for the web. That unleashes Microsoft’s giant army of developers to create software for the phones, who might someday rival the Apple and Android communities of app makers.

The mobile version of Windows 8 is a radical-enough departure from the increasingly stale iPhone-and-Android-interface that one of Apple’s lawyers held it up during the company’s recent patent-infringement case against Samsung, saying “Not every smartphone needs to look like an iPhone.” In the overall smartphone market, Android has market dominanceApple has most of the profits, and as entrenched properties, neither has much incentive to disrupt itself with anything particularly new. The Nokia-Windows package represents something that fickle smartphone buyers have demonstrated a desire for again and again: novelty.

Aside from the novelty, one of the things the markets also seem to miss is Nokia’s ongoing success in the developing world. Its non-Windows phones have a “dominant position” in many emerging markets, and in India handily beat second-place Samsung in terms of both volume and revenue. India was one of just three countries from which Nokia brought journalists to New York for the launch of the Lumia (the others were Britain and China). As more Indians upgrade to smartphones, it clearly plans to use its power in that market to get them.

It’s also hoping that people who already use smartphones will switch to Windows 8. One analyst told Reuters: “As Android and Apple tear each other apart, Microsoft has been waiting in the wings and is in a very good position to move in and entice users to switch from Android to Microsoft, as we have already seen that user loyalty is low.” Windows-based devices represent only 3.5% of the global smartphone market, but before this launch, Nokia already had a majority of those users.

Phones, one of the most disposable of technologies, have long been status objects. They epitomize our most basic desire for whatever is shiny and new. It’s this ineffable quality of Nokia’s new phones—the totality of its thoughtfully-designed and integrated package, down to the “one-to-one mapping” of software to hardware—as well as the fickleness of consumers, that no trader can possibly price.

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