With the iPhone 5 slated to launch in China next week, Nokia (NYSE:NOK) seems to have scored a major coup by roping in China Mobile (NYSE:CHL) for its flagship Lumia smartphone. There have been rumors in the market about the Lumia 920T for several weeks now but Nokia finally confirmed Wednesday that it will indeed be bringing the TD-SCDMA variant of its flagship Lumia 920 smartphone to China Mobile before the end of the year. While Apple’s (NASDAQ:AAPL) iPhone 5 will be launched on both China Unicom (NYSE:CHU) and China Telecom (NYSE:CHA), China Mobile’s huge subscriber base gives Nokia almost twice as big an addressable market for its comeback Windows Phone bid in the world’s biggest smartphone market.
This comes on the back of several reports claiming that the Lumia Windows Phone 8 smartphones are seeing impressive demand leading to sell-outs in multiple developed markets, including the U.S., Germany and Australia. A Yahoo China report goes as far as to claim that Nokia received more than 2.5 million orders for the Lumia 920 in less than a month since launch. To add perspective, this is just a tad shy of 2.9 million sales that Nokia recorded for the entire Lumia portfolio during the previous quarter. With the world’s largest subscriber base of close to 700 million and 3G penetration of only about 11%, China Mobile presents a big opportunity for Nokia to make the most of the rising Lumia popularity.
However, Nokia faces an uphill task against the two well-entrenched ecosystems of Apple (NASDAQ:AAPL) and Google (NASDAQ:GOOG) to create a niche for itself and Microsoft. Even with China Mobile’s help, it is possible that Apple’s iPhone 5 launch might dampen Chinese enthusiasm for the Lumia. Nonetheless, more carrier partnerships and better app support to drive Lumia sales will be key to Nokia’s resurgent hopes. We have a $4.50 price estimate for Nokia, about 40% ahead of the current market price.
Nokia has carrier backing
The need for more competition in the smartphone market, not only in terms of hardware but also software, is being increasingly felt by both customers and carriers alike. A competitive third mobile ecosystem will increase the number of choices for customers and foster innovation in the industry. More competition will also put less burden on the carriers who are increasingly feeling the pinch of smartphone subsidies on their margins. It is no wonder therefore that wireless carriers in both the U.S. and China have jumped on Nokia’s latest offerings to counter the growing dominance of Android and iOS in both these markets.
In the U.S., T-Mobile and AT&T were the early Lumia backers with AT&T affording the phone a “hero” status at its stores and making it the exclusive free phone for all AT&T employees to generate awareness. The marketing push ensured that the Lumia 900 was among the top three best-selling handsets at AT&T until July, a period of four months since launch.  With Lumia WP8, Nokia has signed on Verizon as well to gain more visibility and bolster its chances of penetrating the U.S. market
As for China, its smartphone market is expected to be the largest in the world by the end of the year. With 3G penetration at less than 20%, the growth potential is huge. Even the carriers here are actively trying to transition their huge 2G base to 3G. China Telecom has already jumped on Nokia’s 800C offering. China Mobile is in need of a flagship smartphone that it can actively market in order to promote its 3G network, an area where it has lagged its competitors. (see China Mobile Needs To Step Up As 3G Growth Slows) It is pursuing an Apple iPhone deal, but government concerns over the high subsidies associated with the iPhone is a big deterrent. However, it may not be long before the iPhone arrives on China Mobile, so Nokia will be looking to the make the most of the opportunity while the sun shines.
Still, while selling the iPhone is more lucrative considering its incredible popularity among buyers, emerging market carriers are wary of margin pressures that selling such an expensive phone entails. Nokia can alleviate these concerns by offering more handset choices at lower prices, or packing in more features at the same price. While the iPhone retails at an unsubsidized $775 in China, Nokia has cheaper Lumia offerings such as the Lumia 800C which is priced at a competitive $570, more than $200 cheaper. Nokia also announced the cheaper Lumia 610 on China Telecom and will be looking to add other carriers soon.
WP8 has essential ingredients for success
Overall, the Lumia has seen decent traction build up with carrier support in the U.S. and China helping Nokia sell about 11 million units in all, with sales doubling in the first three quarters since launch late last year. However, where carrier partnerships have not been hard to come by, getting people to warm up to the Windows ecosystem has proved increasingly tough considering how well-entrenched Android and iOS have become as mobile ecosystems. The iTunes store and Google Play boast close to 700k apps respectively while there are only about 120K available in the Windows Phone Marketplace.
This is where WP8 offers both Nokia and Microsoft their best chance to find a place in the growing mobile market. While building Windows 8 and WP8, Microsoft ensured that both shared the same kernel and therefore inherited the same rich feature set that has made Windows a household name in the PC industry. This has helped integrate the two platforms closely, thereby making apps developed for either platform easier to port. Having a huge user base for its Windows PC platform will therefore help Microsoft generate significant support for the new integrated Windows8/WP8 user experience, from both developers and users alike, thereby driving the sales of Windows Phones in general and the Lumia in particular.Notes:
- Apple’s iPhone 4S is no longer the top-selling smartphone in the U.S., BGR.com, September 4th, 2012 [↩]