Is Nokia jumping off the burning platform and into the fire?

NOKIA finally confirmed a tie-up with Microsoft on Friday, which sent a ripple of excitement through absolutely nobody. At Mobile World Congress (MWC) this week it will announce a new tablet. Or an Xbox phone. Or a giant laser with which it will attempt to destroy the moon. It doesn’t really mater – nobody will pay any attention anyway.

Its new chief executive Stephen Elop could drop his trousers and run laps around the MWC site, frothing at the mouth and licking the windows of the BlackBerry stall, and people would only complain he was obstructing their view of the new Playbook (I’m offering odds on this actually happening, by the way).

It must be frustrating for Elop. Nokia is the biggest smartphone provider in the world. Its Symbian operating system was the most common platform last year and it shipped almost a third of all smartphones in 2010.

The problem is, Nokia is both vast and dull. It’s like Canada. Its phones are about as exciting as the vast swathes of icy tundra; characterless and difficult to navigate.

Sure, they both have their highlights. Canada has Montreal. The camera on Nokia’s N8 is nice. But this doesn’t make up for the N900. Or Celine Dion.

Elop has been doing his level best to create some buzz. In a “leaked” Nokia memo, he said the firm was on a “burning platform” and later, rather incongruously, quoted Winston Churchill during his keynote. But is this latest announcement a case of jumping off the burning platform and into the fire?

A tie-up with Microsoft isn’t much of a surprise. Elop (who, incidentally, hails from Canada) was until September a Microsoft man, responsible for its terribly exciting suite of Office products. The software giant has a US market share of between three and five per cent for its Windows Phone 7 platform and is desperate to show it off (and it’s surprisingly good – but only in the sense that discovering your grandmother isn’t racist is surprisingly good; it confounds your expectations but isn’t exactly something to brag about). The deal makes sense for them. It will raise the profile of Windows Phone 7, place it in the hands of people who wouldn’t have seen it otherwise, and if it catches on, Microsoft can skip off into the sunset with all the major handset-manufacturers.

For Nokia it is less straightforward. On the plus side, it can escape its Symbian nightmare (partly responsible for Nokia’s market share nose-dive) and resist strengthening Android further by avoiding a deal with Google.

But Windows Phone 7 is unlikely to convince too many people to buy Nokia. The deal has also effectively killed MeeGo, the Linux-based operating system it has been jointly developing. Bizarrely, a single, orphan MeeGo phone, the N9, will debut at MWC. The two other phones expected this week are the E6 and X7, which will probably run Symbian. With Elop seeming to scotch rumours of a MeeGo-powered tablet, the question is: what exactly is Nokia going to show off in Barcelona?

If the promise of future Windows Phone 7 handsets is the best it can do, Nokia is not so much rearranging deckchairs on the Titanic but sending a diving team to the bottom of the Atlantic Ocean to drape bunting over its rusting shell.

MOTOROLA MILESTONE 2
THE Motorola Milestone 2 had a difficult task – to improve upon the pretty awful Milestone. Its appearance is similar, although the small aesthetic changes make a big difference. The metallic navy hue and metal rim look slick and it’s lighter than its predecessor but still solid. But the greatest improvement is the operating system, an overhauled version of Android 2.2. Social networking is brought to the forefront and, while it can look a little cluttered, it makes keeping up with Facebook and Twitter very easy. Quite who will buy it, though, when stronger alternatives are on the market, is unclear.