Nokia CEO, Stephen Elop, talks the competition and the future

"As I look forward, right now the conversation is about beginning of momentum. We have a range of devices, we've got some unique applications, the developers are moving in our direction, we are seeing this accelerating momentum, and that is all good."

Those are the calm words of Stephen Elop, Nokia CEO, to Pocket-lint at this year's CES in Las Vegas when we convinced him to squeeze a 30-minute interview into in his ludicrously busy schedule.

This time last year most pundits had written off Nokia. While hugely successful in the emerging markets, there was trouble at the top. The company's flagship phones weren't selling, stock was down, and Stephen Elop, the new CEO installed in September 2010, was probably wondering why he'd left Microsoft at all.

Then came the, now famous, leaked "burning platform" memo that highlighted just how dire those straights were that the once great phone maker was in, and, if they didn't do something about it, that the company would be in some serious trouble indeed. Elop had been parachuted in to save Nokia, to turn it around, to bring it kicking and screaming into the new era - the new ear that now sees fierce competition from Apple, Samsung and HTC.

Nokia's old sparing partners are all but dried up. Sony Ericsson has become just Sony, Motorola has been bought by Google and Palm has finally been closed. Not that that phases Elop.

"A year from now, I want the story to be a bit more about, OK, this third eco-system, it's in play, this is happening. There will be a big raging debate about it, but having a more balanced perspective that there is a third contender that clearly is in the game."

That's possible, Elop believes, because of the devices they are producing and releasing, and the products he knows they've got coming up. That and some help from a certain mobile OS with a certain large player in the tech world behind it.

Stephen Elop presents his vision at the Qualcomm keynote at CES

"Right now my senses tell me that people look at the devices and look at the ecosystem and say 'OK we see it, we understand it, we can now visualise what it means and we're impressed.' I am hearing that a lot, and I am pleased with that. We now need to go to the next step which is 'OK, we are seeing it built, seeing the growth in it,' and that's what we should be talking about a year from now. And of course I hope to be talking about the next wave of this, and the new products for that, and new services, so innovation constantly, we'll be talking about a year from now."

The products that will allow him to do that are the Nokia Lumia 800, already on sale in the UK, the Nokia Lumia 710, on sale in the US and due in the UK at the start of February, and the Nokia Nokia Lumia 900 announced at the show and set for launch in the US in March.

"We have not announced the 900 in other countries. One of the things you should notice though is that we clearly have a pattern of this rolling thunder of announcements one after another and what we are doing more and more is making sure that we are targeting specific devices and specific price points for specific markets."

This laser focus is something it seems Nokia followers should expect more of.

"For example," Elop tells us as the crash of a waiter emptying a large ice bucket in the hospitality suite next door breaks the conversation. Oddly embarrassed by the interruption, as if it is his fault, he apologises and carries on. "In the US, one of the things that was actually one of the most important things we did with the Lumia 900 was LTE support. LTE support costs. It costs in terms money for the radio, extra battery life requirement and so forth. LTE in Europe is not so important. It will be, but not today. We haven't announced anything specific, but clearly there is going to be a steady pattern of new devices and a full portfolio of capabilities in Europe and around the world. There is lots more to watch."

But it isn't just about launching new products and hoping that is enough. Elop believes, for Nokia to be successful, it will have to prove that it is very different from what is already on the market.

"Our first priority, always, always, is to differentiate our experience from Android and iPhone. That is job one, two and three quite frankly."

But what about Samsung, HTC, LG and others that also make phones? While the rumours continue that Elop is a mole for Microsoft and that the company is about to be bought by the creator of Windows Phone 7, in reality, for the time being, those remain just rumours and, with such strong guidelines, how can Nokia stand apart from the other companies that also use Windows Phone 7?

Nokia Drive, exclusive to Nokia Lumia phones is leading the app charge for the company

Elop believes services like the Nokia Drive app is a great start allowing them to stand apart from what is offered elsewhere in the market and the WP7 ecosystem. 

"With a Lumia you have access to the Nokia Drive application for free as part of the device. Whereas others have mapping and some other things, that full personal navigation device experience is something that is unique in our platform."

You'll note that Nokia Drive is an app, not an embedded feature and that's important to Elop, clearly worried that by tinkering too much with the OS will cause fragmentation. He believes he has it covered.

"I pick that example because it is one where there is a common platform for mapping on a Windows Phone device that everyone shares and we are actually contributing to that for everybody, but we still have the ability to build more on top. We want to be very careful that we don't do something that makes an application that someone else has built work on our devices but not on others."

Elop adds:

"We don't want that fragmentation introduced into Windows Phone because we are beginning to see how in a certain other ecosystem that fragmentation becomes a problem," Elop says knowing that we know exactly who he is taking about.

Of course it's not all just about apps, Nokia has said that it believes design will also help them stand out from the crowd - it is the first to launch a bright cyan and pink phone in the UK in a long time, although it's not a move it's opted for in the US with the launch of the Lumia 900.

"We work with our operator partner, in this case AT&T, and jointly there is an assessment done as to which colours will move initially and which ones won't," Elop says after a chuckle when caught off guard by our slightly fatuous question of why no Magenta (pink) Lumia 900 in the US.

"I wouldn't be surprised if we saw other colours at other times."

Elop turns his 900, cyan in case you're wondering, over and over in his palm between waving it around like a proud school kid. You like the cyan we ask?

"I do, actually. I like all the colours. One of the advantages of testing devices is that I get to see these crazy colours that the market hasn't seen yet, which is fun."

Stephen Elop carries three phones with him; the Lumia 900, the Lumia 800, and a competitor's device

It's the last he says on the colours, but it bodes well, especially if you are looking for something a little more exciting than black or white, the industry favourites.

But Elop also likes the black Nokia Lumia 800 as well - he carries both - and a third competitor handset so he can "learn". He might be the CEO of Nokia, but that doesn't mean he wants to isolate himself too much, it seems. It's also a handy way for him to fend off our next question. Will those that bought the Lumia 800 feel cheated that the 900, a better spec'ed model, is about to come out less than 6 months later?

"No," is the quick response before Elop adds, "I will absolutely continue to carry an 800 because it is a beautiful device and I like the form factor and the size. The 800 is going to continue to sell in markets around the world for a great deal of time to come, so I think people should be very proud of the device they have because in itself it is a unique experience."

Consider yourself told.

Those perhaps more fickle will likely be excited by the news that, although initial sales of the 900 will be through AT&T with a contract, there "are there going to be successor devices, different shapes, sizes, different configurations, of course."

That, to us, reading between the lines, suggests that we will be seeing a 900 variant for other parts of the world in due course. The Americans don't get to have all the fun, just like the Brits didn't with the 800.

"As much as I don't like a customer saying 'hey I want that phone that's over there' I kind of like the fact that it was just a few weeks ago that people in the United States were writing me emails saying 'Why can't I get the 800 in the US?' Well, now you've got the 900, and people in the UK are going to ask 'Why can't I get the 900?' so a bit of excitement helps as well.

"The message we are trying to deliver is: 710, 800, 900, and there is going to be more."

The conversation moves on from phones to apps and the one sticking point opponents always bring up when compared to Apple and Android. The lack of them. There might be 50,000 and counting but the operating system is still missing plenty of big names, like Skype.

Skype for WP7 was announced at Mix'11 but as yet to land on the OS - Image credit Long Zheng

Rumours are abound that we shouldn't have to wait long (our guess is MWC at the end of February) and it's something that doesn't seem to worry Elop either.

"I worry a bit less about that one, because I can imagine that the work is going to get done," Elop tells Pocket-lint as he fixes his stare on the Microsoft logo, but he doesn't slip off the hook so easily when we ask him to detail the app he most enjoys, and the app that he most wants.

"It's not an app but something that I love about Windows Phone. I am trying not to make this the sales pitch, but it is a sales pitch. It's the fact that I can hit 'Me' and all of my kids Facebook information, all the Twitter feeds, good, bad, different, whatever they are, it's all there. Similarly around People hub, 'hey Susan, let's have dinner, look at Susan, boom I've got it' and there, I'm not using an app, I'm not using Twitter, and Facebook, and LinkedIn, and email, or SMS, but it is all packaged for me. I truly do enjoy that integrated experience.

"Only occasionally do I go as far going into the Facebook app or the Twitter app, because generally I don't need to. Now, in terms of apps that I enjoy, I am enjoying the new ESPN app, I am following my favourite sports teams to see what they are doing. I am all over the world in crazy time zones, so to be able to get access to that video feed or whatever is really good."

And the app that he most wants?

"This is a personal answer. I am a pilot, there are certain applications that have been popularised on the Apple platforms for pilots, both on the iPad and the iPhone that have really affected how people fly airplanes. Those apps aren't yet available on Windows Phone but, you know, I have a personal interest. We'll see how we do."

But Elop acknowledges that app choices aren't always easy to please.

"Who else in this room wants the pilot app? No one. Who else within the radius of our meeting room wants the pilot app? Probably no one. It's one of the long tail apps. Clearly we've got a huge focus on the ones that count for the majority of the interest and downloads and so forth. That's a place where both Nokia and Microsoft together, and in a co-ordinated way, are going after the applications to come to Windows Phone."

There is no doubting that Elop is a charismatic guy. Not as outwardly exacting as Jobs, nor openly as excitable as Ballmer, but still holds a presence in the room and one that you can see rubs off on to all those that he talks to, but charm only gets you so far. The cold reality of sales is what a CEO gets judged for at the end of the day. So, how well Nokia is actually doing at shifting the Lumia 800? As we suspected, we don't get the figures; just the vibes, and a little ducking of the question.

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"The first thing we look at, because this is more important than anything else, is how are the products being received by consumers? When they put them in their hand, when they begin to use them, how are they rating the experience; because, if we don't have the product right, then everything else is more difficult.

"We are very pleased with the reception we are seeing broadly. We look at something in particular called the net promoter score (NPS), which is essentially a person's willingness to recommend a Lumia product to a friend. It sounds like a very simple question, but actually many companies use it in a very scientific way. Because instead of asking do you like the colour, do you like the buttons, do you like the applications, would you recommend it to a friend, it tends to be an overarching measure of the quality of the experience and we have some good NPS scores that we are seeing from our early consumers."

Elop might not be talking sales figures or shipments, but he is on a roll detailing how all these factors have shown the problems ahead and how they can resolve that.

"Our primary challenge is to make sure that a consumer is aware of the products, understands how the user experience with the Live Tiles works and everything that makes Windows Phone what it is. We have to help them understand that and we have to get the devices in their hands. Everything we are doing is focused on reducing the friction in that process.

"The point is, we are educating consumers about the tiles, about that experience, because what is out there in the industry today, people are most familiar with, is a grid of applications and icons that don't do anything. They aren't used to things that are scrolling, that are alive, that are presenting information. So as we introduce them to that, we are confident then that we will see some good momentum. But it is still very early days."

If it sounds tough, that's because it is going to be. Samsung and Apple are both enjoying the same momentum, and, for Nokia to crack that, it's not going to be an easy journey. Will there be a tipping point in Nokia and Microsoft's favour? Will the company ever be able to rest once more at the top of the mobile tree? Elop isn't so sure.

"I don't think that day ever comes," he replies in a firm reminder.

"The minute we believe that we don't need to do that, I think that history would show that that's the minute that you then fail. I think that it is going to be constantly very aggressive in terms of marketing and positioning. Most importantly, very aggressive in the brilliance of the products we deliver, in the innovation. Already there is a tonne of work going on in Nokia to take everything we do several big steps further and we will keep doing that."

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