With the launch of Lumia telephone, Nokia put it there; Microsoft

Friday, April 6th 2012. | Gadget News

Nokia Lumia 710Not long ago, it wouldn’t be unusual to walk into an AT&T store looking for a Windows Phone and not be able to easily locate one – much less find a sales rep who could talk about it knowledgably and enthusiastically.

That’s about to change with the launch Sunday of the Lumia 900, Nokia’s flagship Windows Phone, the device that holds the smartphone fate of both Nokia and Microsoft in its sleek polycarbonate case.

From prominent store displays to well-trained and Lumia-equipped sales reps, AT&T – which is working with Nokia and Microsoft on the launch – promises that the marketing for the phone will be one its biggest promotional pushes ever.

All of which serves to demonstrate just how much is riding on this launch.

For AT&T, having a viable and growing third smartphone platform means it’s less beholden to the wishes of Apple and Android phone manufacturers.

For Nokia, the Lumia 900 marks the Finnish phonemaker’s renewal in the U.S. smartphone market – a market it once dominated but has since seen shrivel, eclipsed by the rise of Apple’s iOS platform and companies making phones using Google’s Android platform.

Nokia’s Symbian smartphone platform currently holds only 1.5 percent of the U.S. market. In February last year, Nokia made a bet-the-company gamble when it announced that it was going to go with Windows Phone as its primary smartphone operating system.

For Microsoft, the Lumia 900 represents a badly needed chance to show that Windows Phone can gain traction in the mobile marketplace, something it’s struggled mightily to do before it’s too late.

Since fall 2010, when Microsoft launched Windows Phone 7 – replacing the dated Windows Mobile platform – the company’s share of the smartphone market has declined. Currently, in the U.S., Microsoft holds less than 4 percent of that market.

“What is at stake is control over the future of computing,” said John Jackson, vice president of research with market research firm CCS Insight. “This is a tactical manifestation of an epic battle between the likes of Microsoft, Google and Apple.”

And that battle, Jackson said, “by and large, is going to be won at the retail point of sale.”

The Lumia 900, which will sell for $99 with a two-year contract, will be hard to avoid when walking into AT&T retail stores for the next six to eight weeks, according to Jeff Bradley, AT&T senior vice president of devices.

The company is making the Lumia 900 its “hero” device for that time period, meaning there will be window signs, billboards and stands that prominently display the phone.

It also means store sales reps have received more training on this device than others that launch around the same time, and the Lumia 900 in particular “is getting more training than past launches have received,” Bradley said.

In addition, Nokia stepped up the number of devices it is seeding among the store reps to help the reps get familiar with the devices and enable them to tout their features to customers.

“We expect when it’s all said and done that a majority of our retail salespeople will have the device,” Bradley said. “We expect them to have (the Lumia 900) as their primary device.”

In addition, there will be two different TV ad campaigns, one each from AT&T and Nokia.

Overall, Bradley says, the marketing push will focus on how “simply faster” the Lumia 900 is, meaning both that the Windows Phone 7.5 operating system is intuitive to use, as well as snappy. The “faster” word is also meant to emphasize that the Lumia 900 can run on AT&T’s fast 4G LTE network. (The caveat is that AT&T has rolled out LTE to only 30 some cities so far. Seattle isn’t one of them, and the company has not said when it will be available here.)

The marketing efforts will also focus on how the device integrates with an array of Microsoft services such as Office, SharePoint and Xbox Live.

Bradley declined to say how much AT&T is spending on the campaign.

Microsoft and Nokia both declined to speak about their marketing efforts for the Lumia 900.

But based on what’s emerged so far it appears Microsoft will fully push the message of how a “simply faster” Lumia 900 can save people time.

Microsoft has also teamed up with Best Buy for a series of “Behind the Tiles with Windows Phone” events designed to demonstrate Windows Phone features and geared toward tech enthusiasts.

Nokia, meanwhile, may be taking an edgier, splashier approach to the Lumia 900 launch, with a New York City Times Square event Friday and a website that takes digs at the Apple iPhone. The site is not identified as Nokia’s but can reportedly be traced back to Nokia.com.

(Almost overlooked in the Lumia hoopla, by the way, is the HTC Titan II, a Windows Phone also launching Sunday on AT&T that is priced at $199, or $100 more than the Lumia 900. The Titan II, though a “great device that will be displayed prominently,” Bradley says, will not be getting the “hero” device treatment.)

So the big question is: What constitutes success?

Nokia and Microsoft aren’t talking numbers.

But Jackson, the CCS Insight analyst, says the number of Lumia 900s sold would have to be in the millions to qualify: “Any figure that doesn’t start with the letter ‘m’ will be a disappointment.”

And if Nokia doesn’t succeed with the Lumia 900, Wall Street “will judge them harshly,” Jackson said.

From what Jackson can tell, the companies “recognize that getting pricing, the product and the promotion right are necessary but insufficient” – thus, the aggressive seeding program to get the phones in the hands of sales reps.

“In any retail market, the real challenge is the last two inches between handing the (customer) the device and having them buy it,” said Will Stofega, program director of mobile phone technologies and trends for research firm IDC.

The key to crossing that last gap is “training the retail staff, getting them to understand the strong points, the philosophy behind the industrial design and software,” Stofega said. “To not just point and say: ‘Try this out’ but to live the device.”

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