OPINION A bad start to what was supposed to be a major competitor against Apple’s iPhone can be overcome. But it will take better features and marketing that appeals to consumers and IT departments alike

Nokia Lumia 900′s software bug is not its biggest problem

About a week ago I got an invitation to a local “open house” for the new Nokia Lumia 900, where the vendor would be showcasing its new smartphone to the Canadian IT industry. I meant to RSVP, but got sidetracked. They asked again, and I meant to reply. The day before the event, however, I got a last-minute e-mail saying the open house had been cancelled, because Nokia had experienced a “shipment delay.”

Hmmm, I thought. Not encouraging.

Wednesday’s news that the Lumia 900 has a software glitch that could lead to data connection loss was an even more serious false start for a product that is supposed to revive the smart phone fortunes of not only Nokia but Microsoft, whose Windows Phone OS is powering the attractive-looking device. Essentially a memory management problem, according to Nokia, the glitch is related to its own software and not Windows Phone or the hardware. A fix is expected by April 16, and in the meantime, AT&T customers in the U.S. who already bought one will get a US$100 credit – which brings the price point for the Lumia 900 to exactly US$1 (not including the contract). We’ll see if Rogers, who is carrying the phone here, will offer something similar.

Unfortunate PR aside, does any of this really matter in Nokia’s road to market share recovery? Probably not. Lots of vendors have launched products with bugs during the initial release. Apple has hardly ever unveiled a new product that didn’t immediately run into supply problems. What matters in 2012 is whether the Lumia 900 has the feature set that will prove more compelling to consumers than those who already have an iPhone, and perhaps tangentially, whether the devices will be easier to adapt to corporate use.

Although it’s been a while now since Nokia essentially began walking away from Symbian, I’m reminded of a trip I took to London almost 10 years ago to the Symbian Expo, where Nokia executives were talking about how to get businesses to accept cell phones as a piece of IT equipment. An executive at the time held up a booklet called “Symbian Smart Phones for Dummies,” a 26-page guide to its user interface and features. At the time, the conference chatter was about the security issues raised by mobile devices, connecting to the network and appropriate policies. The seeds for bring-your-own-device were being planted long before BYOD became a buzzword. “In the enterprise, (adoption) is going to focus on total cost of ownership, predictability and cost,” a Vodofone executive said. It still is.

What would make users forget the Lumia 900’s stumble out of the gate and consider it as a true iPhone alternative? Maybe better use of Skype, which Microsoft acquired and has done little to exploit. How about, instead of a voice recognition tool like Siri, some specialty software that data-mined a user’s activity and used it to help them better organize their appointments, projects and calls? Or, since Microsoft is promising Windows 8 “everywhere” when it’s released, introducing it first in the Lumia, so that smart phone users can see whether the promise of Metro-style interfaces will be fulfilled? These kind of concepts, coupled with better manageability for IT managers, could add up to something.

The Lumia 900 may never be an iPad killer – it’s probably not even a BlackBerry killer – but once it gets past these first birthing pangs, maybe it could be something else: a BYOD savior.

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