Q&A: Nokia South Africa’s Communications Manager

Nokia released their new flagship model, the Lumia 920, at the end of last year, which also represented the company’s first mobile device that makes use of the Windows Phone 8 operating system. IT News Africa caught up with Leo McKay, Nokia South Africa’s head of communications, to find out about Nokia’s vision for 2013, their most popular mobile handsets and the company’s love affair with the African continent.

Leo McKay, Nokia South Africa’s Chief Communications Officer (image: Nokia)

* The last two years were pretty busy for Nokia. What is on the cards for 2013?

The outlook has been improving over the last couple of years, even if the financial performance hasn’t been where we would have liked. In February 2011 we rolled out a bold new strategy that took the company in a new direction in a number of different ways, and we really hunkered down and focused on three core pillars of the strategy that were closely aligned to our business units.

At that stage we had a big Symbian portfolio, we had the MeeGo platform that we were co-developing with Intel, and then on February 11 we committed to Windows Phone.

Fast forward to 2013, we have a broad Windows Phone portfolio, which is really encouraging. As we go forward, we intend to have solid coverage over a lot of price points in smartphones. We are bringing innovation back to our portfolio, and are well-positioned and focused on the strategic execution – but we are still in the middle of a big turn-around.

* With the Nokia Lumia 920 being the flagship device, what other releases can we expect this year?

We will certainly launch more products, but we do not like to open the presents before Christmas so you will have to wait to see what we have in store! You’ll see phones that are more affordable, you’ll get different screen sizes and configurations.

We need to make sure that we can bring a significantly improved experience at the kind of price levels that we bring to market. I do not think it will be a case of saying we will launch new phones ’every year’ or ‘every eight months’. There is a lot of life cycle in phones after a new version launches, and we are focused on also improving the performance for the people that already have Nokia devices.

Even after we launch a device like the 920, we still sell a lot of 800s, the previous generation Lumia devices. This industry pumps out a lot of new technology all the time, and sometimes I think it is only a small percentage of us that get caught up in the ‘I don’t have the latest product and I need it’. A lot of people are happy with replacing their phone every three- or four years.

* Nokia’s Asha series of phones are very popular in Africa. How do you compete with other mobile manufacturers in such a competitive market?

Vigorously. A big difference between South Africa and the rest of Africa is that it is all very retail driven in the rest of Africa. People in a lot of markets look at phones as a real investment. I spend a lot of time up in East Africa and the people that buy a Nokia 1280 see it as an something they are going to hang onto for a long time.

So the reason we have been successful in Africa is that we are what a like to call a ‘globally-local’ company. We believe very strongly that you do not just put on product and services in the rest of the world, and then roll out the cheapest to Africa. It can work if you are into ludicrously low price points, but that strategy will fail at some point, because even though the prices are lower in some respects, people are spending a massive amount of their income on mobile phones.

We have been operating in Africa for well over ten years, and there is an official Nokia presence all over the continent. And be sure, it is a very diverse place and a very complex environment.

* What has been the most successful Nokia handset?

We have had a lot of success with different phones – but I think there is a clear winner. It is not only the most successful Nokia, but also the most successful mobile handset, and the most consumer electronics device in history, and that is the 1100 series Nokia phone. I think about three years ago we announced a milestone that we had sold 250-million units. After the 1100 there cam the 1200 series and then the 1280 – people all remember the dust-proof, black-and-white screen, text and type phone.

That (the 1100) is by far the most successful phone in history for anybody. They still sell, and they are sub-R250 devices. They have to be built to withstand almost anything. They have to be dust-proof as phones get dropped all the time and last in rural areas be it in India, Africa, or China. You need something that is robust, cost effective to run, and most of them have a battery stand-by that run into the months.

There are a lot of different things that these consumers need form a phone, and that is why it is going to take a long while for smartphones to grow to dominate the market like they do in the US or Western Europe.

* Can we expect more partnership from Nokia in 2013?

I would say we are incredibly focused on the Microsoft partnership, around Windows Phone and our smartphone portfolio. If you look at our mapping business, we have a lot of partners – we power maps for Amazon, we power the Microsoft mapping solution, provide maps for BMW, Toyota and a number of others. That is the point of the HERE location business. On the phone side, we really want to build an ecosystem so we work with a lot of application developers and we are really getting the app ecosystem to a place where we want it to be around both Lumia and Asha – and we work closely with Microsoft in order to do that. We are incredibly focused on making sure that the alliances that we have now really work well.

* Has the recent staff cuts at Nokia affected South Africa?

There is nothing pending for us now and there have been no recent announcements. But we have changed structurally quite a bit. The history of the South African operation is we used to be in a region called SSA (Sub-Saharan Africa) which was run out of South Africa,.

Then we moved to be MEA (Middle East and Africa) and our office was in South Africa and Dubai. Then they decided to centralise out of Dubai, so a lot of the headcount moved from here to the region office in Dubai. We were a big organization, globally at one stage we were had 60% market share in mobile phones and smartphones, but that is not the case at the moment. We went through a number of transitions to be a better and more streamlined organisation, and if you look at big strategic decisions – like smartphone software platform – we used to build our own, but we don’t anymore.

We are still a South African market leader and we intend to keep fighting to stay there. Markets like Western Europe got hit hard, as our smartphone portfolio was not what it should have been during in the past couple of years. In SA we perhaps managed to transition through that a little better because things happen a little bit slower down here. But now we have a portfolio that we can compete with – so I feel we are in a very good position.

* Where do you see Nokia within South Africa’s mobile landscape?

From a business perspective, I feel we are in good shape. We always want to do better and always want to do more, and we need to be a lot more visual in the high-end segment again. It is not a case of the product not being there and being competitive and these things are cyclical. I am certain that if we are in the consideration set we have a very strong proposition. So I would say that is a big target for us this year – we need to be visual, above-the-line, on social media, in the retail environment.

Charlie Fripp – Consumer Tech editor