Nokia Profit Tops Estimate as Share Falls

The Finns aren’t gloating types, but they must be taking a certain amount of delight from Nokia’s third-quarter comeback. The world’s largest mobile phone maker on Oct. 21 reported revenues of €10.3 billion ($14.4 billion), up 5 percent from the same quarter in 2009 and higher than the €9.99 billion average estimate among analysts surveyed by Bloomberg. More importantly, net income of €529 million ($740 million) was nearly three times consensus. In last year’s third quarter, Nokia (NOK) lost €559 million.

Driving the turnaround was a huge jump in smartphone sales, which hit 26.5 million units in the quarter, up 61 percent from a year earlier and 10 percent from the second quarter. All told, the category of products that Nokia calls “converged mobile devices” contributed €3.61 billion to the top line, while sales of nearly 84 million conventional handsets in the quarter brought in just €3.56 billion. That makes this the third consecutive quarter in which smartphone revenues outpaced those from simpler, higher-volume phones.

Other metrics also showed positive movement. Operating margins for Nokia’s dominant Devices and Services unit, which accounts for 70 percent of total revenues, climbed one point from a year earlier, to 10.5 percent. And the company’s closely watched average selling price (ASP) crept up to €65, from €61 in the previous quarter and €64 a year earlier. This was due to the higher relative volume of pricier smartphones in the mix, though the ASP of those devices continues to sag—down a worrisome 28 percent during the past year, suggesting Nokia may have been forced to discount in order to move merchandise.

Still, there was enough good news in the quarterly report to drive Nokia’s shares up 6.3 percent in Helsinki trading, though the rise wasn’t matched later in New York, where shares rose 3.3 percent by late afternoon. It also helped that Nokia forecast flat to higher margins in the fourth quarter and raised its forecast for overall industry growth to “more than 10% in 2010,” compared with an earlier estimate calling for a rise of “approximately” 10 percent.

Unfortunately, that’s pretty much where the positive points run out. Nokia conceded in its earnings statement that it expects to “slightly” lose market share this year compared to last in both volume and revenue terms. To help keep costs in line, the company announced plans to lay off 1,800 people from corporate functions, R&D, and at Symbian, a Nokia-owned, London-based software firm that develops the operating system used in Nokia smartphones. It will also streamline operations by merging the development of the Symbian 3 and Symbian 4 operating systems.

Fixing Symbian is key to addressing Nokia’s slipping market share. Simply put, the King of Handsets is having a tough time delivering products that excite buyers the way Apple (AAPL) iPhones and models running the Google (GOOG)-backed Android operating system seem to. Reviewers and bloggers tend to pin the blame on the Symbian software, which though powerful and robust, is faulted for being less intuitive to use.

That point was made starkly clear when researcher Strategy Analytics released its third-quarter smartphone market share estimates later on Oct. 21. In a market that grew overall to 77 million units, up 78 percent from a year earlier, Nokia’s sales grew at less than the rate of the market, up 61.6 percent, while Apple’s grew 90.5 percent and the “other” category, which includes a lot of Android sellers such as Samsung, HTC, and Sony Ericsson, soared 117%.

To be sure, Nokia still has 34.4 percent market share to No. 2 Apple’s 18.3 percent, but that’s a historic low for Nokia—and Apple is closing the gap. At the same time, a crowded market is getting even more competitive: BlackBerry-maker Research in Motion (RIMM) slipped to No. 3 in the third quarter, according to Strategy Analytics, with unit sales up 45.9 percent, but retains its strong footing in corporate accounts, while giant Microsoft (MSFT) is trying one more to time to barge into the handset market with its new Windows Phone 7 software.

All these challenges raise the stakes for Nokia’s new CEO, Stephen Elop, who joined the company five weeks ago from Microsoft. He’s got a lot of work to do, especially addressing Nokia’s tiny market share and near irrelevance in the U.S. Having a decent set of quarterly numbers under his belt and a nice pop in the stock could help smooth the transition.

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