Is Nokia Toast? Cell Phone Maker Still Has All the Wrong Answers

Nokia phone
Nokia phone

Shares of Nokia (NOK) have nearly doubled since bottoming out last summer, but it's premature to call this a turnaround for the Finland-based wireless phone company that until recently was the world's largest handset maker.

If anything, at least one analyst sees this as a selling opportunity.

Raymond James analyst Tavis McCourt issued a rather cautious note on Wednesday morning. Yes, the company's Lumia 920 is getting hard to find in some markets. Nokia's new phone -- powered by Microsoft's (MSFT) Windows Phone 8 mobile operating -- is showing "solid" demand, but channel checks through the smartphone's stateside carrier AT&T (T) shows that it's well behind in popularity to the iPhone or Samsung's Android-fueled Galaxy S3.

In other words, this may be more of a supply issue on Nokia's end than a surprising global appetite for the new phone.

History Repeating

We've been here before.

There was plenty of buzz during the springtime release of Lumia 900 through AT&T. Microsoft was pouring a ton of money into the device. Remember those "whoa -- Megan Landry alert" commercials with the guy trying to impress his coworker with the phone's curved edge and slick navigation tiles? Well, Megan may have been impressed, but smartphone buyers and investors weren't.

A software glitch led to a convenient $100 credit for all early buyers of the Lumia 900 through AT&T, essentially making the $99 phone better than free.

It wasn't enough. Nokia shares went on to hit an all-time low.

The Market Is Only Getting Harder for Nokia

The Finnish handset maker was the undisputed top dog when traditional feature phones were the mobile phones of choice.

Surfing the Web, retrieving email, and playing Angry Birds on a phone seemed impossible just a few years ago. Folks were perfectly content making calls, collecting text messages, and playing the rudimentary Snake game.

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Then the smartphone revolution erupted. It may have started with corporate types tethering themselves to their BlackBerry and Palm devices, but it went mainstream after Apple (AAPL) introduced the iPhone in 2007.

These days, Apple's iPhone and a growing list of devices running Google's (GOOG) open source Android are the platforms of choice. Those two operating systems currently account for more than 85 percent of the global smartphone market.

But rather than jumping on the Android bandwagon, Nokia wasted its time trying to champion too many fringe operating systems. MeeGo? Symbian? Nokia was out of its element as a feature phone maker in a smartphone-leaning marketplace. Samsung recently overtook it as the world's largest maker of wireless phones. Accepting big money from Microsoft to back Windows Phone is shaping up to be another bad decision for the company that, coincidentally enough, is now run by a former Microsoft executive.

A Sucker's Rally

Nokia isn't going away anytime soon. Despite having its debt grade downgraded to near junk status earlier this year, the company was flush with cash even before Microsoft came into the picture.

Nokia is also flexing its intellectual capital. It's asking a California court this week to enforce an arbitration award that would keep Research In Motion (RIMM) from selling gadgets with wireless networking capabilities without negotiating patent royalty rates with Nokia first.

However, even if Nokia succeeds, it's really a matter of the weak beating up on the weaker. Neither company is a force in phones these days.

There's a reason why Nokia's stock has been trading in the single digits for nearly two years. The same Nokia that was a growth darling in the 1990s is expected to post its first annual deficit in ages this year. Analysts see revenue falling 24 percent.

Yes, despite being in what many consider a hot industry, Nokia is actually shrinking. Its bread-and-butter feature phone business is fading, and it's not anchored to the mobile platforms that matter. It could've been Samsung. It could've hitched its horse to the open-source standard in Android. Instead, Nokia got greedy, and now it's paying the price.

Wall Street isn't holding out hope for a turnaround in 2013. Analysts see another loss next year with revenue falling yet again.

Optimists will argue that Microsoft may acquire Nokia, but the software giant is still suffering from the indigestion of recent big deals that didn't pan out. Those same bulls will argue that Nokia still has a chance to finally bet on the right operating system, but that ship has apparently sailed.

Motley Fool contributor Rick Munarriz does not own shares in any of the stocks in this article. The Motley Fool owns shares of Apple and Microsoft. Motley Fool newsletter services have recommended buying shares of Apple, creating a bull call spread position in Apple, and creating a synthetic covered call position in Microsoft.

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