The sale of its handset business to Microsoft provides Nokia with money for yet another reinvention of itself, but it presents the Finnish company with a fundamental choice. Will it retreat into the minority activity of licensing, or can it revitalize itself (and Europe) with a manufacturing-led business? Or is value-in-information now the name of the game?
It is interesting that Microsoft threw a $250 million datacenter to be built in Finland into its
deal to acquire Nokia's handset business -- possibly as a sop to keep at least some of the regulators happy.
A datacenter may be able to make use of Finnish water courses for cooling, but it is no replacement for engineers designing and making material products that are then bought globally. Nokia will continue to sell networking infrastructure equipment, but its remaining focus on mapping services and technology development and licensing suggests that it is seeking the low capital intensity of the IP licensing uplands that lie adjacent to troll country.
The path has been taken before by ARM and Imagination, but there is still the concern that the authorship of IP is a minority activity that can only be done by a few people and that captures a relatively small part of the product value.
When I ask senior executives about geographic issues they often respond by saying that their company competes in a global market, and thinking on a national or regional basis is old fashioned. That may be tenable from a senior executives' point of view as he or she flies around the world from company site to company site. It may even be tenable from the shareholders' perspective. But everybody has to live somewhere, and from a citizen's point of view, if wealth is not created in your region and shared around through the combination of local spending and taxation, how is your region going to continue to be able to afford its standard of living?
It was global competition, often from the US and Japan, that reduced Europe to having national champions in various manufacturing sectors. The competition broadened and European champions emerged. Now Philips has got out of consumer electronics, and Nokia has exited mobile phones. Siemens is hanging in there in industrial automation. For now, Europe continues to have local design and manufacturing of several makes of automobile and in the politically strategic aerospace sector through Airbus. But the pressure continues to increase with the emergence of Chinese and Indian competitors.
So will Europe become the regional equivalent of a "sink" town where all the young people of talent get out as soon as possible and head to the bright lights for exciting employment? Those bright lights were once in the United States but would now also be in Taiwan, China, and India. Ultimately, such a process would leave Europe with an aging population unable to service its own needs, let alone create the value to draw in much-needed cash.
But hope springs eternal. Nokia is no stranger to reinvention. It has evolved from its origins in 1865 as a riverside paper mill. It has provided paper-based insulation for electrical wires. From there it moved into rubber and made products from rubber boots through electrical cable to tires. The reinvention that turned Nokia into a mobile phone company happened in 1979, and it is noticeable that manufacturing and product delivery were a fundamental part of each offering.
One hint that Nokia has bigger plans than to just design and patent stuff is that the sell-off deal includes Ä1.5 billion (about US$2 billion) in funding options, backed by Microsoft. It would be good if Nokia could use that money, as well as the considerable proceeds of the sale of its handset business, for acquisitions and investments -- and yet another reinvention that will create value and jobs in Europe.