Small Biz: Nokia Makes a Comeback

For all the hype over the Palm Pre and the new $99 iPhone, for my money, the real small-business smart phone story of the hour is the re-entrance of Finnish handset ubermaker Nokia (NOK) (Stock Quote: NOK) into the U.S.

(NOK) In the compendium of American tech-business dumbness—after the slaying of the original Napster, or the 1980s firing of Steve Jobs from Apple (Stock Quote: AAPL) (AAPL) —there should be a lengthy chapter on Nokia getting skunked from the North American smart phone business.

(NOK) (AAPL) Like all divorces, the actual facts are lost in the fog of time: Apparently, carriers like Verizon (VZ) (Stock Quote: VZ) (NOK) (AAPL) (VZ) , AT&T (T) (VZ) (Stock Quote: T)  (NOK) (AAPL) (VZ) (T) and Sprint (S) (VZ) (Stock Quote: S) (NOK) (AAPL) (VZ) (T) (S) were furious when Nokia attempted to cut them out of a lucrative content business. Nokia insiders, in turn, had about enough of dealing with the idiotic, only-work-in-the-United-States cell infrastructures and Balkanized politics. Either way, in spite of the fact Nokia is the planet's dominant smart phone maker—with something like 40% of the market—Nokia is lucky to get 2% of the domestic smart phone business. Apple, Research in Motion (VZ) (Stock Quote: RIMM) (NOK) (AAPL) (VZ) (T) (S) (RIMM) , LG and HTC simply get too much carrier support.

Well, no more.

(NOK) (AAPL) (VZ) (T) (S) (RIMM) In May, in a glasnost of sorts, AT&T started to sell an important Nokia smart phone: the sleek E71x ($99 with plan and rebate).

(NOK) (AAPL) (VZ) (T) (S) (RIMM) I have been testing this unit for the past of couple of weeks, and while it is far from perfect, the E71x shows that Nokia has learned a thing, or three, about smart phones. And the company definitely has a bead on gaining back the North American smart phone market.

(NOK) (AAPL) (VZ) (T) (S) (RIMM) What you get: This phone really does offer a third small business option to the iPhone and BlackBerry.

Quite simply, the E71x is a reaaaallly nice smart phone for the small business person. For starters, it's priced right. At $99, it is right there with the newly discounted iPhone and the BlackBerry 8800. It is durable, made of a fungible, scratch-resistant black metal. No iPhone condom needed, nor was I afraid of busting the cheap plastic found in some BlackBerrys.

(NOK) (AAPL) (VZ) (T) (S) (RIMM) The E71x has a unique, elegant, easy-to-use (and read) keyboard that even my stumpy fingers and fading vision could manage. I particularly liked how the numbers were laid out for call dialing, eliminating the keyboard bugaboo that plagues the BlackBerry and iPhone.

(NOK) (AAPL) (VZ) (T) (S) (RIMM) The Nokia has a decent, if small, 2.4 inch-display and all the smart phone bells and whistles: e-mail support (both Web mail and Microsoft ( MSFT) Exchange server (Stock Quote: MSFT), a decent HTML browser and the usual communications protocols: WiFi, Bluetooth and 3G connectivity on the AT&T EDGE network. Plus, 12 days of standby time, up to 8 GB of expandable storage, a 3.2 MP camera. You get the drill. This is a first-class smart phone.

(NOK) (AAPL) (VZ) (T) (S) (RIMM) ( MSFT) And here is the best part: The E71x is just 0.4-inch thick and weighs a feather-light 4.4 ounces, a fraction of the iPhone and BlackBerry Bold. As much as I love my Bold, it's a beast. I could put the E71x in my pocket and not need suspenders to keep my pants up.

(NOK) (AAPL) (VZ) (T) (S) (RIMM) ( MSFT) What you don't get: This isn't a smart phone you instantly know how to use. Nor does it have tons of software support.

The E71x runs on the Symbian OS, a popular mobile standard worldwide, but one that gets no love here in America. GetJar, a San Mateo, Calif., mobile-content distributor, pegs the total Symbian market share at around 2%. I think that is high, actually.

(NOK) (AAPL) (VZ) (T) (S) (RIMM) ( MSFT) And, given the gee whiz "there's an app for that" factor with the iPhone and BlackBerry, the Symbian-based environment on this E71 is old school in the way wrong way. Icons are poorly rendered. The interface can be a bit rugged and sluggish. Basic tasks like configuring e-mail take a purple belt in gadget jujitsu. The thing is definitely not the plug-and-play networking affair that is the typical American smart phone.

Also, you will definitely miss the depth of the apps available. I found several development gaps from third-party business software players like Salesforce and Netsuite.

(NOK) (AAPL) (VZ) (T) (S) (RIMM) ( MSFT) Bottom line: For all the E71x's limitations, and there are many, these are all short-term issues. I suspect Nokia will not let them last long and I expect the company to ship a smart phone that offers a comparable software experience to the iPhone or G1 from T-Mobile (Stock Quote: DT). And, slowly, Nokia will become as major a smart phone player here in North America as Palm (Stock Quote: PALM), BlackBerry or maybe even Apple.

(NOK) (AAPL) (VZ) (T) (S) (RIMM) ( MSFT) Listen up, my fellow communications-addicted small business owners: Nokia is the dominant world leader in this category for a reason. Nokia makes solid phones at good prices. If you are jammed by choosing a BlackBerry over an iPhone, give the E71x a try. If it doesn't do the job quite yet, wait. Nokia is on track to become a legitimate smart phone choice for your business.

(NOK) (AAPL) (VZ) (T) (S) (RIMM) ( MSFT) You might as well take advantage of it.

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