Stephen Elop's mission impossible

June 2, 2011: 6:47 PM ET

Stephen Elop is sure he can turn Nokia around, but if succeeds it will be an entirely different Nokia.

FORTUNE -- Nokia chief executive officer Stephen Elop is a man on a mission. Despite the Finnish phonemaker's rough week (it issued a profit warning on Tuesday, which sent shares tumbling), the newish CEO recently made the rounds at a couple of confabs in Southern California to pitch his turnaround plan for the company.

Speaking at Qualcomm's (QCOM) Uplinq conference in San Diego Thursday morning, Elop said there is room for a third ecosystem -- Nokia's (NOK) collaboration with Microsoft (MSFT) -- to compete with Apple (AAPL) and Google (GOOG). But the CEO's lofty plans to come up with a viable alternative to increasingly popular iPhones and Android devices may turn out to be just lofty plans. Why? With the first NokSoft device expected late this year, the company's current trajectory is already too little, too late. And no amount of future innovation on Microsoft or Nokia's part can turn back time.

"What has happened over the last couple of years is there has been a shift from a battle of devices to a war of ecosystems," Elop told an audience of mobile developers at the Uplinq conference. In that he's echoing a sentiment that comes across in a long Bloomberg Businessweek profile that paints Elop as a leader tasked with rallying yet rebuilding Finland's equivalent, in status and prominence, of 1980's era General Motors -- a monolith at the height of its powers, and thus in an undeniable decline. 

Well, that ecosystem war started way back in 2007, when Apple launched the iPhone. While Google responded with the now-wildly successful Android, Nokia wasted time tinkering with Meego, a mobile platform it collaborated on with chipmaker Intel (INTC). It took until February of this year for the Finnish phonemaker to decide to throw its weight behind Microsoft's Windows Phone. And it will take until end of this year to see what the fruits of that partnership will look like.

In the meantime, hundreds of thousands of developers have jumped on the Android bandwagon (talk to any startup desperately looking to hire Android programmers and you'll see why). Even Elop admits that Google, not other phonemakers like HTC or Samsung, is his greatest competition. Of course, Nokia considered partnering with Android before it chose the Microsoft/Windows Phone route. But Elop said on Thursday that Nokia's final assessment was that "we would not be able to differentiate enough" on Android's platform.

So will Windows Phone give Nokia the level of differentiation it needs to really make a dent in Google and Apple's growth? That's doubtful, though we won't know for sure until at least 2013, when more NokSoft devices launch. By that time, Android in particular is expected to be even more ubiquitous, making it even harder for Nokia to compete.

Even Windows Phone 8, the upcoming version of Microsoft's mobile operating system, can't solve Nokia's problems. On Wednesday Microsoft unveiled a sneak peek at the revamped OS, a new, touch-centric interface that can work on any device and could help Nokia come out with some innovative tablets. But it doesn't solve the bigger problem facing both companies -- being late to the game.

Elop is a man on a mission alright, but it's hard to see how it's not mission impossible.

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About This Author
Michal Lev-Ram
Michal Lev-Ram
Writer, Fortune

Based in Silicon Valley, Michal Lev-Ram covers enterprise and mobile technologies for FORTUNE. Prior to joining FORTUNE, she wrote for CNNMoney, Fast Company, Popular Science and other business and technology publications. She was also a staff writer at Business 2.0 and holds a B.A. in journalism from San Francisco State University.

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