The return of Nokia: Interview with HMD Global’s Sarah Edge

7 Nov 2018

HMD Global UK and Ireland general manager, Sarah Edge. Image: Michele Limina

The mobile phone brand Nokia is making a brash return led by Finnish player HMD Global. John Kennedy talks to the company’s UK and Ireland general manager, Sarah Edge.

At Mobile World Congress earlier this year, one of the sights that stood out most for me was the crowds that descended on the HMD Global booth at the pivotal telecoms industry shindig. Necks strained to get a clear view of the new Nokia-branded devices such as the relaunched classic 3310 but also new Android devices such as the flagship Nokia 7 Plus, the Nokia 8 Sirocco, and a new and improved Nokia 6.

A brief history lesson is needed. More than 12 years ago, Nokia had the mobile world at its feet. More than half of the smartphones sold in the world were Nokia devices and the compelling work tool du jour was rival RIM’s BlackBerry. Then the Apple iPhone came along in 2007 and upended everything. Not long after, Google launched Android and the rest is history.

‘The number one rule is, you cannot produce a phone with the Nokia logo on it and it not be a great-quality device. That is super-important’

The leadership at companies such as Nokia, Microsoft and RIM tried to laugh off the threat from the iPhone with its sense of invulnerability due to its size. Former Microsoft CEO Steve Ballmer scoffed: “It has only one button.” How wrong they all were.

Within three years, Nokia and BlackBerry were no longer relevant and Microsoft tried to correct an existential crisis by buying Nokia and imposing its Windows Phone operating system on Nokia products. It turned out to be an $8bn disaster for Microsoft and what seemed like the death knell for the proud Nokia brand.

Nokia’s second coming

A selection of Nokia smartphones from 2018.

The Nokia 2018 line-up revealed earlier this year at Mobile World Congress. Image: HMD Global

But now, the Nokia brand is making a return through Finnish start-up HMD Global, a company largely staffed by former Nokia employees who never fell out of love with crafting mobile phones. HMD is largely made up of the mobile phone business that Nokia had sold to Microsoft in 2014 and then bought back in 2016. HMD has exclusive rights to the Nokia brand and works in close partnership with Google and players such as Qualcomm.

Headquartered in Espoo, just west of Helsinki, HMD has brought back the 3310, famed for its seemingly endless battery life, and is focused on mid-tier smartphones with premium materials. It is also continuing to play to people’s nostalgia with the return of the 8110, the device made famous in the Matrix trilogy of movies.

Speaking with Sarah Edge, general manager of HMD Global for UK and Ireland, in Dublin, you get the sense that the perfect storm and lessons from history that now haunt Apple and Samsung make the return of Nokia seem like perfect timing. Reminders from recent history are everywhere.

“We are a Finnish company in Espoo, right opposite the old headquarters of Nokia. Our other two major offices are in Shenzhen where we have our product and manufacturing teams, and our global brand team is in London, right next door to Microsoft.

“We are at 600 employees globally, and a huge amount of them are former Nokia people and there’s a lot of passion from people who really want to make this work because they were there in the good days prior to Microsoft.”

Do the new devices retain that old Nokia magic?

A close-up of the Nokia 7.1 smartphone.

The Nokia 7.1. Image: HMD Global

There is definitely something about the old Nokia magic in the new devices such as the 7.1, which, unlike most smartphones today, actually has the brand on the front of the device. A 5.8in-screen mobile that feels pretty nice in your hand, the 7.1 features a Zeiss 12MP camera, 4GB of RAM, a more-than-decent 3060mAh battery that charges pretty fast, and is powered by a Qualcomm Snapdragon eight-core processor. It is marketed as mid-tier but truly has all the bells and whistles of a high-end smartphone, including nice glass materials, a fingerprint sensor and even the requisite notch you’ll find on the top-end devices.

The new 8110 banana phone is a trip down memory lane tinged with a blast back to the future. The 2.4in screen, slide-down cover and 2MP camera bely a workhorse that comes with a 4G antenna and a dual-core Snapdragon processor. Powered by a fork to the Android operating system, it should resonate with people who want a digital detox but at the same time stay connected.

Two phones, one yellow and one black, side by side.

The Nokia 8110, reimagined for 2018. Image: HMD Global

For Edge, the ambition to offer devices that resonate with people is the linchpin of the entire strategy.

“Well, there is a big growth focus. We already have offices in 90 countries selling into 200 markets globally, which is quite significant from starting out less than two years ago, so we have big ambitions. We will be pushing into the US in a big way next year, which will be a big focus. In Europe, IDC published some data a few weeks ago and we are already number five in Europe in terms of market share, which is great news for us, so we’ve gotten some nice articles from journalists saying this kind of growth has never been seen since Apple. We’ll take that.”

Edge said that the key to the return of Nokia is a methodical focus on partnerships. “When we set this up, it was key that the partners had to really work hard for us. Our partners are Qualcomm for most of our chipsets [and] Foxconn, who make our phones and pretty much half of the world’s consumer electronics, including iPhones. Foxconn has also invested in the company along with private venture capitalists and we have Google as a super-strong partnership. From the Nokia 3.1 and upwards, they are all in the Android One programme, which is basically Google’s stamp of approval to say this is the best experience you can get from an Android phone.

“Security is also a massive issue because people are doing everything on their phones. Because we are part of Android One, we do these weekly security updates as a commitment. We have made that guarantee for three years of the device. We also collaborate closely with Zeiss for the camera technology and this is crucial because, to so many consumers, the camera is rated as one of the top three most important things in your smartphone.”

For Edge, the crucial thing will be living up to the legacy of Nokia. “You have to remember that this was a company that more than a decade ago sold half of the mobile devices in the world and was worth billions of euro. When we took this on, one of the things that Nokia wanted us to do was make sure the brand was really protected. Most of our executives are all ex-Nokia; they have that relationship and trust, and are determined to do a good job and deliver the kind of quality you would expect of Nokia.

“The number one rule is, you cannot produce a phone with the Nokia logo on it and it not be a great-quality device. That is super-important.”

Another area that HMD and the Nokia brand intend to win big in is the area of peripheral devices. Launching soon will be a range of sleek, designer wireless headphones that will work across iOS and Android devices, and that will compete with Apple’s AirPod wireless headphones.

“It is a hard battle. We know the brand resonates really well, people trust the brand, and it takes so much money to build a brand. The reviews we are getting from the devices show that the brand is living up to expectations, which is great. And of course, the Google Android One push is really standing us apart.

“Also the mid-tier price point we are aiming for with the 7.1 (€349 SIM-free) resonates because consumers are becoming more rational in terms of how much money they want to spend,” Edge concluded. “People are holding on to their phones for longer than ever before and the upgrade cycle is getting longer.”

John Kennedy is a journalist who served as editor of Silicon Republic for 17 years