Interview with Nokia SA's General Manager

Mathia.jpgFleishman-Hillard invited me to meet with and interview Mathia Nalappan, Nokia South Africa’s General Manager, last week. I sat down for an hour with Mathia and Tania Steenkamp, Nokia South Africa and Southern Africa’s Communications Manager and chatted about topics ranging from models for rural areas to Nokia’s environmental efforts to the new Nokia N97.

Some of the questions I asked were based on questions I received on Twitter and Facebook. Thanks to the people who passed along questions to ask.

The digital divide

Mathia began our conversation with an overview of what Nokia is doing to help bridge the digital divide in Africa and globally. Nokia formed a services arm about a year ago as an important part of Nokia’s overall business model. Within the services arm, Nokia sees emerging markets as being of particular importance. This isn’t really surprising given that much of this market represents a virtually untapped and sizable market. Getting into this market means producing more affordable devices and providing more useful services to this market. One such set of services is Nokia’s Life Tools which focusses on agriculture and education. It features a simplified interface with more pertinent information. Life Tools was tested in India and we can expect to see it rolled out in South Africa during the course of 2009. The emphasis is on providing appropriate tools for specific market segments and there may be scope for specific customisations for the South African and African markets over and above the existing toolkit available in Life Tools.

Customised devices and services

This degree of customisation ties into a question I had about the various software versions we see on Nokia devices. Besides the different editions of the Series 60, 40 and other handset interfaces, there are also varying service packs. I asked Mathia why there are different customisations for different devices and he explained that this level of customisation really exists to fit differing demands users have of those devices. Nseries users have slightly different demands of their devices than Eseries users, for example, and while there are devices which seem to cross the divide between these two classes of devices (like the N97, for example), there isn’t really a one size fits all solution for everyone. This can be a pain especially when new software becomes available for one specific Series 60 flavour, for example, and not for others. An example of this is the new Maps 3.0 beta software which is basically only available for the Nseries devices and not the Eseries.

Another aspect of Nokia’s focus which I found interesting is its almost layered approach to services beginning with cheaper and more robust devices running specific services for more basic users (for lack of a better term) like farmers using something like Life Tools and layering education and then entertainment services over that basic offering and slowly introducing more sophisticated services as the users become more sophisticated.

Email services

Mathia is particularly excited about being able to give these less sophisticated users access to email through Mail on Ovi as a basic email service for these users. Nokia sees email as a major opportunity for emerging markets, particularly Africa, and an introduction to this important business tool. The Mail on Ovi service is distinct from the Nokia Email/Messaging service which is a push email service available to a more sophisticated market.

Mail on Ovi’s offering is pretty basic and features an email address @ovi.com and 1GB of storage space. Its appeal is its integration with Nokia devices and a user’s ability to sign up for a new account using their devices and to then run their mail accounts on their phones. This makes a lot of sense to me given the proliferation of mobile devices compared to more expensive laptops and PCs (which are not always that convenient out in the fields).

As for the Nokia Email (formerly Nokia Messaging) service, I have installed it on my E71 (after a couple tries). It certainly looks a lot better than the default mail application and it has the added benefit of being a push email client. You do need to trust Nokia with your email account credentials so if you are nervous about that sort of thing, stick with some alternative. Basically, you register up to 10 email accounts in your Nokia Email account and the service will push new emails to you as they arrive. You can customise the delivery schedule (I only get push email between 7am and 8pm during the week). The service is similar to the Google Mail for Mobile app in some respects although better integrated into my E71 than Google’s offering (as you would expect). It pretty much replaces the default mail app. Below is a slightly blurred demo of the service.

I asked whether Nokia Email is a reaction to Blackberry, especially given Nokia’s decision to move away from Blackberry support in Nokia devices. Mathia explained that with Nokia Email and Exchange support, there is no need for an intermediary service (presumably which the Blackberry service has) so it makes sense for Nokia to support these more direct options. For the time being mail delivery through the Nokia Email service will be facilitated through the network operators more or less like this:

Nokia Email workflow.png

Version 1 has just been released although the pricing model doesn’t seem to have been settled just yet.

Nokia Music Store

One service I am particularly interested in is the Nokia Music Store which should be available in South Africa in the first half of next year (if I understood Mathia correctly). I have read that the music will only be available in the very limited Windows DRM and users will only be able to access the site using Internet Explorer and Nokia devices which have the application installed (presumably). I am not a fan of this approach to online music sales and downloads so I asked Mathi
a about the rationale for going this route. He confirmed my suspicions that this format was pretty much dictated by the music publishers and record labels. He also mentioned that this was seen as the best way to approach this new service and there may be scope to expand to other platforms down the line. I took this opportunity to ask about the paucity of support for Mac and Linux machines compared to Windows. I think he had been warned that I would ask about this, I haven’t hesitated to express my views about this in the past. Bottom line is that while there are some applications that run on a Mac (I’m not aware of any Nokia apps running on Linux), creating a range of comparable apps that work on platforms other than Windows is not a priority at this stage. It may happen in the future (and there are some encouraging signs already with apps like the Maps Loader being available for the Mac) but for the time being the focus is on Windows machines. For what it is worth, I see this as a mistake but at the same time I understand the approach. That being said Mathia made the point that Nokia isn’t willing to develop solutions for other platforms that are half-baked in the interests of rushing something out and that is a fair comment.

The N97 and converged devices

Of course I had to ask about the N97 which most Nokia fanpeople are salivating about. Mathia said we can expect to see these devices available in South Africa by the middle of 2009. We talked a bit about how the N97 bridges the gap between the Nseries and the Eseries and Mathia commented that business users want a robust and functional business device and at the same time want to have entertainment functionality. This is why we see entertainment functionality, albeit it more limited than the Nseries, in Eseries devices. This could well also make the N97 appealing to a business user too. It certainly interests this business user!

As I mentioned earlier, this doesn’t necessarily mean we will see the end of the distinction between the Nseries and the Eseries but we will probably see more shared functionality and features between the two categories of specialised devices. Nokia tends to design its devices to suit their functionality and their users’ demands. Makes sense to me too.

Tools for marketing people

Walter Pike asked about barcode readers and marketing initiatives. Mathia outlined a possible future where Nokia devices will go beyond the mobile codes we have started to see in various contexts and be intelligent enough to recognise billboards, mobile codes, business cards and so on and present us with the information we want relevant to those displays. He also mentioned an application that is being tested which will translate foreign languages using a combination of text recognition and a translation service accessed through your mobile device. He referred to Near Field Computing. I found an article on the RFID Update website from January 2007 which reveals some of the possibilities:

RFID technology will figure prominently into one of the most ambitious city-of-the-future projects to date. In Tokyo’s famed Ginza shopping district, 10,000 RFID tags and similar wireless beacons will be embedded in public fixtures like walls and street lamps, according to Computerworld. Passers-by, equipped with prototype reader devices, will be able to obtain location-specific information as they pass each beacon. Examples include directions to the closest public transportation terminal, current promotions at a retailer in the neighborhood, or the menu of a nearby restaurant. The information will be available in Japanese, English, Chinese, and Korean.

It seems to be a pretty exciting space for marketing people and will have some pretty profound privacy implications when it is in widespread use. Again, this represents a shift towards an advertising centric model or at least a model that places quite a bit of emphasis on advertising revenue. Location based services form a prominent part of Nokia’s plans in this space. Nokia Maps is a big part of that. I received a question on Twitter about Nokia’s maps pricing model. Mathia explained that the maps are free and users pay for voice guidance and city guides (Nokia has partnered with Lonely Planet, I believe, to produce city guides). The paid content is available on subscription and the pricing model is flexible enough to suit most users’ requirements based on the amount of time they need the service.

Nokia on the environment

The topic of the environment and Nokia’s efforts to prevent waste and also present a more environment friendly product was pretty much a question posted on my Facebook Wall. Tania jumped in here and told me about Nokia’s strategies. I was pleasantly surprised to hear how much Nokia has been doing to benefit our environment. I took a look at the Nokia website and saw that it lists the following achievements:

We’re proud of the many environmental firsts we’ve achieved:

2001
We made Eco declarations available for our products.

2005
We introduced the first EU RoHS legislation compliant mobile phone, the Nokia 5140i, a year before the legislation came into force. Since July 2006 our devices have been RoHS compliant globally, not only in European Union area.

2006
We started to make our new phones and chargers PVC-free.

2007
We introduced Nokia’s most energy efficient charger so far, the AC-8.

We launched the first device using bioplastic in covers, the Nokia 3110 Evolve, in December 2007. It also came with the energy efficient AC-8 charger and compact packaging using 60 percent recycled materials.

We introduced the Eco catalogue for S60 devices.

We started adding reminders to unplug your chargers to our phones.

We launched the world’s first mobile offsetting application, we:offset. The application helps people offset CO2 emissions caused by flying, directly from their mobile device.

We chatted a little about the charger notifications and how Nokia was already doing some work in this area before it became fashionable to do so (Tania said Nokia has been looking at eco-friendly initiatives since 1996). Nokia has a take back program which gives people an opportunity to hand back their old devices (any make) and accessories at one of the 35 collection points around the country for recycling. In return, these donors are given an indigenous tree grown by an eco-friendly supplier to plant and grow (I like that!). There isn’t a substantive culture of recycling in South Africa at the moment.

Globally, Nokia’s packing material is recycled and it has saved 240 000 tons just by resizing and reusing packing materials. The reminders to unplug chargers when your device is fully charged reminded me about something I heard/saw when we had all that load shedding not too long ago. Tania pointed out that a recent study revelaed if everyone in the world unplugs their charges, the power saved can power 100 000 average sized homes. Roughly 60% to 80% of Nokia’s devices are recyclable and what remains is used to power the recycling process.

Buying Nokia stuff

One thing that has bugged me is that it isn’t easy to find much variety of Nokia products and accessories in South Africa. I would like to see a Nokia shop where I can pick from a more complete range than the pathetic ranges we see in mobile phone shops. Nokia does have a number of concept stores in the world and we may see a similar experience i
n South Africa at some point in the future. Nokia does tend to work fairly extensively with its partners in different regions to provide this sort of experience. Mathia acknowledged that providing a better product range is something he wants to improve on going forward.

Doing business with Nokia

Another question I received was how companies can best do business with Nokia and have a meaningful interaction with Nokia. Mathia pointed out that Nokia tends to work through its partners (for example, the network operators) and trains staff to deal with Nokia specific issues. Nokia SA has dedicated people positioned within the operators for this purpose. Often the type of service a customer needs is fairly comprehensive so a more holistic approach is more appropriate, hence the link with the operators. Nokia also has its Nokia Care division for very specific assistance.

Yes, this post is coming to an end

It is clear that Nokia has its sights fixed on emerging markets and I think we can expect to see more innovation in this spaced based largely on mobile solutions. Nothing too new there but improved, meaningful Internet access using a mobile device could revolutionise the local Internet space as all those millions of mobile phone users go online.

I enjoyed this interview and the opportunity to meet with Mathia and Tania. Sure this is a marketing opportunity for Nokia but I have been a Nokia user for as long as I have had a mobile phone (I think I got my first phone, a Nokia 2110i, in about 1997 or so) so this was quite an opportunity for me. I also appreciate the Nokia branded Moleskine notebook Tania presented me with at the end of the interview. It also makes such a difference being able to ask questions about future plans (even if they are pie in the sky) and have the questions answered. It doesn’t impress me to ask a question of a manager in a large tech corporate and be told that the company doesn’t comment on future plans. If answers are limited to what is current (and known) then what is the point of asking questions?

I also want to thank Casey Monteiro, Lisa Rabbitts and Davina Martin at Fleishman-Hillard for arranging this for me. I enjoyed that.

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Paul

Enthusiast, marketing strategist, writer, and photographer. Passionate about my wife, Gina and #proudDad. Allergic to stupid

8 Comments

  1. […] that Nokia is doing itself and its fans a great disservice in the process. Anyway, I wrote in my interview with Mathia Nalappan a short while ago, the music store is only going to be available to Windows Media Player/Internet […]

  2. I want to complain about the Quality of the Nokia selphones these days. I am 'n MTN Nokia subscriber since 1997, with the same number since 083 4545 730. At the moment I experience a problem with my phone, don't want to charge properly. SO I CAN'T USE IT AT THE MOMENT!I took it to the provider and they said it must go “in” for a month. What must I do without a selphone for a month?? Why can't the thing last for at least two years, my son's Nokia keyboard packup in 6 months, he had to pay to get it fixed, he use an old other brands phone at the moment and he is on a contract. You say we don't pay for the phone, but for airtime, its nonsens. As a subscriber I expect a phone to last for 2 years, as you expect me to pay my contract for 2 years. like a did for 12 years now. My first 2 phones last 4 years, the children used it, when we upgraded. Now it don't last the first half of the contract? Our family have 4 MTN Nokia contracts, and we seriously looking to change now.

  3. Hi Mariette

    I have passed your complaint onto our Customer Care department – I believe that Meridith has alread left a message for you on your mobile.

    Hope your issue will be resolved ASAP

    Regards
    Tania
    Nokia

  4. Hi Tania

    Thank you for responding so quickly, but as I said my phone can't be
    charged, so last night I borrowed a phone.
    Meridith did leave a message, but I could not hear the number.
    Can she phone again or email me again, please.

    Regards
    Mariette

  5. Hi Tania

    Thank you for responding so quickly, but as I said my phone can't be
    charged, so last night I borrowed a phone.
    Meridith did leave a message, but I could not hear the number.
    Can she phone again or email me again, please.

    Regards
    Mariette

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