Lumia Takes Center Stage (On Easter Sunday?)

The Lumia is upon us. Microsoft, Nokia and AT&T -- three fading stalwarts looking to regain some ground on iOS and its devices –- have formally unleashed the Windows-based Nokia Lumia 900 with fanfare that includes “international superstar Nicki Minaj [bringing] a building in Times Square alive and [creating] one of the biggest LED displays ever seen,” as the press release puts it.

“Tens of thousands of people watched as Nicki performed a medley of her hits before some of the world's leading visual artists turned the prominent building into a living, breathing entity using cutting-edge CGI technology with 60-foot waves appearing to cascade down the building” we’re told. “Nine of Times Square's famous electronic screens showed the fantastic reaction of the crowd.” 

There’s a video of the event on Facebook, but the spectacle Friday night is not just a flash in the Crossroads of the World. Ad Age’s Kunur Patel informs us that AT&T is spending more on the Lumia 900 launch –- about $150 million -- than it did even on the iPhone. 



“Big backing was a no-brainer for Nokia and Microsoft, players that have been pummeled in the extremely competitive, extremely lucrative smartphone market and are teaming up to compete with Apple, Samsung and Google,” writes Patel. “Less obvious is that the device may be equally crucial for AT&T, the phone's sole carrier.” 

That’s because AT&T lost its exclusive deal on the iPhone in the U.S. early last year –- first to Verizon, then to Sprint Nextel.

Verizon’s smartphone subscribers have grown 81% since it landed Apple while AT&T has seen a 37% increase; only 1.6 million smartphone users now separate the two. Verizon is also heavily invested in Google’s Android OS, of course, particularly with its Droids.

“With our operator partners, we're seeing a lot of support and desire for a third ecosystem,” Valerie Buckingham, Nokia's head of marketing-North America, tells Patel. “We're definitely stepping up to the stage at the investment you need to be successful in this category.”

The official launch date is a bit of an enigma, however. “For reasons known only to AT&T executives, the Nokia Lumia 900 launches in the U.S. today, Easter Sunday,” Dylan Tweney wrote in Venture Beat yesterday.

On the positive side, Tweney says that “There are a lot of reasons to like what Nokia is putting down with this Windows Phone 7-based handset: A big, 4.3-inch screen, an 8 megapixel rear camera and VGA front-facing camera, 4G LTE data capability, and the $99 price.”

But Tweney quotes from decidedly mixed comments from two of the nation’s most influential tech reviewers –- the Wall Street Journal’s Walt Mossberg and the New York Times’ David Pogue. And they seem to capture the sentiments of most commentators.

“Many of the essentials are there ….,” writes Pogue, who also points out that it’s “beautiful, fast and powerful, and it’s only $100 (with a two-year AT&T contract).” But, he points out, “unfortunately, there’s an even longer list of important apps that aren’t yet available for WP7 phones.” 

“It’s difficult to imagine that American shoppers will scout for an AT&T store that’s open on Easter just to try a Lumia 900,” wrote the Times’ Brian X. Chen in the “Bits” blog. “And for companies, day one sales are important, because they can serve as a measure of the public’s excitement about a product and determine how it will sell over all.”

The significance of the product isn’t lost on The Verge’s Joshua Topolsky, who leads with, “It occurred to me that the Lumia 900 review would be one of the more important critiques of a product that I write this year.”

But, he concludes, as much as he “wanted to love this phone,” and although he thinks Nokia “made a lot of the right decisions,” and despite the fact that “it is generally easy and pleasant to use, and the low price point, coupled with the beautiful hardware and solid LTE service could be persuasive,” he’s not sold. “For me and most of the people I know, there's still something missing here, and until Microsoft and Nokia figure out what that is, Windows Phone will continue to struggle upstream.”

That may be one reason why the headline on Janet I. Tu’s story in the Seattle Times Saturday says, “Now comes the hard part -- selling the Nokia Lumia 900.” 

Jeff Bradley, AT&T’s SVP of devices, tells Tu that marketing “will focus on how ‘simply faster’ the Lumia 900 is, meaning both that the Windows Phone 7.5 operating system is intuitive to use, as well as snappy.” But for all the time and money that will be spent on TV ads, spectacles such as Minaj’s Times Square appearance and social networking, AT&T is also relying heavily on old fashioned, P2P salesmanship and Nokia is seeding a lot of devices with store reps. 

"In any retail market, the real challenge is the last two inches between handing the [customer] the device and having them buy it," says IDC’s Will Stofega. Writes Tu: “The key to crossing that last gap is ‘training the retail staff, getting them to understand the strong points, the philosophy behind the industrial design and software,’" Stofega said. "To not just point and say: 'Try this out,' but to live the device."

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