First Click: Nokia gadgets are coming back

April 26th, 2016

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The big news out of Europe today is Nokia's announcement that it's buying digital health firm Withings for $191 million. In announcing the acquisition, Nokia CEO Rajeev Suri said that it "puts us at the heart of a very large addressable market [and] leverages the power of our trusted brand." Read between the lines and you should find yourself suitably excited: Nokia is getting back into the consumer electronics market.

When Nokia sold its devices business to Microsoft a couple of years ago, it seemed like the final nail in the coffin for one of Europe's great consumer tech giants. The company that had led the mobile phone revolution was ignominiously retreating to the less thrilling world of networking and infrastructure equipment. But today Nokia is reasserting its desire to be a presence and, as its chief says, a trusted brand in the consumer realm once more.

Rising from the smartphone ashes: a connected devices company

Withings makes a variety of connected health devices, including a set of smart scales, a heart pressure monitor, a thermometer, a couple of fitness trackers, and the well-liked Activité smart watch. If Nokia believes, as I do, that its brand reach and recognition are greater than those of the French company it's taking over, chances are good that we'll soon be able to buy Nokia-branded watches, baby monitors, and ambient lights. All of Withings' products fit neatly into Nokia's overarching plan of being a leader in the development of the Internet of Things ecosystem.

For many of us in Europe, Nokia will remain a beloved name, having provided the most personal technology we used while growing up. Who doesn't have a significant life moment that wasn't shared with a Nokia 3310 or 5110 nearby? Those emotional bonds remain, and it's smart of the reorganized Nokia to try to capitalize on them by acquiring Withings and looking to return to prominence. The road back won't be easy, however, since Nokia lost most of its design and engineering expertise when it sold out to Microsoft in 2014. Those that didn't move to Redmond departed to start their own companies or try something different.

Nokia still showed it can put together an attractive product with its N1 tablet last year, though it didn't expand that device's availability much beyond China and Taiwan. Withings now gives Nokia the chance to rebuild its own design competence and to reintroduce itself to a younger audience. Technology has changed, the world has moved on, but Nokia's goal is once again to be the provider of the most personal devices that we use. Chasing smartphones is a fool's errand these days, though who wouldn't like to see a revival of the "Moonraker" smartwatch that Nokia once built for Microsoft? Whether it's Nokia watches or fitness trackers or tablets or bathroom scales, I can't wait to see what this new future holds.


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