Nokia CEO’s Hairshirt: We’ve Suffered Pain, But Symbian^3’s Our Antidote

With rumors his job’s on the line, Nokia (NYSE: NOK) CEO Olli-Pekka Kallasvuo went farther than ever to acknowledge Nokia’s travails, on the company’s call to discuss a big profit fall with investment analysts.

Kallasvuo referred continually to the “pain” he says Nokia has gone through lately — but says keenly that the N8 handset, coming in Q3, and the big Symbian^3 rewrite on which it is based will help Nokia compete.

And he talked up the team behind him, despite referring to the “orders” one such team is being given…

Nokia will make a comeback at the higher end of the smartphone market,” Kallasvuo emphasized to analysts. “We are approaching the end of this painful product transition at the high end of our product portfolio. Delivering the N8, with a high-quality user experience, will mark the beginning of our renewal. We will achieve our potential and regain high-end leadership in our industry.”

Nokia is not ditching Symbian — Kallasvuo expects to ship a “family” of 50 million Symbian^3 phones. But it’s also retaining the separate Meego OS for higher-end phones and has made the U.S. a priority for that team — a split that confuses many.

Nokia’s U.S. position

Asked why Nokia doesn’t have a strong developer base there: “I very much agree — the Nokia team as a whole is of that opinion strongly, and has felt the pain also in that respect.

“Why have we not been successful in the U.S. smartphone market? We’ve been thinking about that a lot — we have to remember that the U.S. market is not similar to any other market. The operator testing you need to have in the U.S. is definitely far more than anywhere else, also time-wise. You need a situation where you are quick to the market in order to be able to have that benefit.

“Frankly, we have been trying many times, but it has turned out to be a painful experience; but the learning is here. Symbian earlier generations have not been, from a time-to-market point of view, fast enough in getting over that hurdle. It’s meant we have missed some time windows.

“Now, if you look at Symbian^3 overall and the massive rewriting of the codebase we have been doing over the last 24 months — this is a massive operation — we can, also from the U.S. market point of view, come to a situation where we can launch products based on Symbian early enough.”

A tale of two systems…

“We will also need Meego in the U.S.. The assault to be carried out by Symbian^3 as well as Meego. The Meego team has very much been instructed, or ordered if you like, to give priority to the U.S. market — that’s very much in the plans, in the roadmaps, in the thinking. The painful learning here has taken place.”

Nokia CFO Timo Ihamuotila: “We are planning to have more advanced features in Meego and will supply a richer set of APIs for Meego computers.”

While the likes of Apple (NSDQ: AAPL) and Google (NSDQ: GOOG) profit from single operating systems, iOS and Android, keeping back some of the best OS features from the vast majority of Nokia’s phones seems like a high-risk strategy — and when exactly are these Meego phones going to start showing their teeth?

Kallasvuo: “The operator response to Symbian^3 has been tremendous. So now it’s really a question of getting the quality right. This is why we postponed the Symbian^3 from Q2 to Q3.

Kallasvuo stressed that the whole team, and not just himself, was fully behind Symbian^3.