Nokia claims that it will unveil its long-term operating system roadmap on Feb. 11. We all know why this is crucial. Most of us have not seen a Nokia smartphone user since before the last Iraq war, and Nokia smartphones no longer show up on airport radar or sonar systems.
Just by looking around, one must conclude that Apple, Android and BlackBerry have a joint 99% or greater market share, with Nokia being focused on some obscure lagging-indicator geographies in far-away lands.
The U.S. may be in the process of spending and regulating itself into an economic basket-case, but in the area of smartphones, it holds the indisputable thought leadership position. Apple and Google lead the way, with Canadian neighbor BlackBerry still growing like a weed, and the main competitors are Hewlett-Packard (Palm WebOS) and Microsoft -- not some company in Scandinavia or Asia.
So let's handicap Nokia's options for trying to salvage a future for itself. There are four major options at hand for Nokia:
1. Android. Sometimes it's best to not over-think it. Android has already, in a short time, become the most well-developed smartphone ecosystem, despite several important flaws, including lack of corporate/government grade security. Android gives the user the greatest amount of choice with respect to form factors, hardware vendors, and carriers.
Most major smartphone reviewers have been asking for more models such as Samsung's Nexus S, which offers the "pure" Google experience without any value-subtracting interface overlays common to devices produced by vendors such as Samsung itself, HTC, SonyEricsson, Motorola and others. It gives the end user a superior software experience, and upgrades to the latest versions of Android faster than any other device.
In addition, Nokia would be able to enter the market the fastest by offering this "pure" Android experience just as with the Samsung Nexus S. It could do so in a variety of form factors -- portrait keyboard, landscape keyboard, no keyboard, small screen, big screen, etc.
Nokia could also write its own software overlay to Android, as most other major vendors have done. While I think this would be a waste of time, because consumers just don't want it, it's certainly possible.
It is also more than fully possible to do both - first, offer the pure "Nexus-like" Google experience in the interest of go-to-market time, and then add its own "special sauce" some months or a year thereafter.
2. Microsoft. The problem here is that Microsoft defines the end product very tightly. Screen resolution, placement of buttons, and even some of the chips, are determined by Microsoft -- not vendors such as Samsung, HTC, Dell or LG. It is therefore unlikely that Nokia would be interested in this arrangement.
That said, Nokia's new CEO Steven Elop comes from Microsoft, and perhaps he could cut a new type of deal with Microsoft. Perhaps Nokia would be able to get an exclusive version of the OS, where it could differentiate more than the existing batch of products that became available last October/November.
3. Acquire someone. With Palm gone (to HP last year), there is now only one musical chair left that Nokia could reasonably acquire, and that is Research in Motion, which would be expensive. It also would solve almost every problem Nokia has with its position in North America, smartphones in general, and a future OS for both smartphones and tablets, as a result of RIM's recent ownership of QNX.
That said, RIMM stock is way too cheap for RIM to want to sell out at a price anywhere near the current $62. The premium would have to be absolutely astonishing, well over 100%, for RIM to accept such a deal. It is, therefore, extremely unlikely.
4. Continue with some combination of its existing operating systems: Symbian and MeeGo. If Nokia does this, it is equivalent of walking into the desert without a hat and lots of bottled water. Nokia would face a steady continued decline into further irrelevancy.
What would be the stock impact of these choices? If Nokia does any combination of 1 (Android) and 2 (Microsoft), the stock should rally significantly. If Nokia does 3 (acquire RIM), the stock impact should generally be positive, but will depend on the price at which RIM would be willing to sell ($150/share?). If Nokia does 4 (Symbian/MeeGo), one can safely short Nokia all the way down to zero, sort of like Kodak or one of those PC/mainframe companies of the 1980s, the names of whom we have all now forgotten unless we look them up on Wikipedia.
Bottom line: The good news here is that Nokia has good choices, and that they are not mutually exclusive. Nokia has the scale to go with BOTH Android and Microsoft -- hey, HTC is doing it, so why couldn't Nokia?