The Small Print...
So, Nokia's phone and smartphone division has now been officially sold to Microsoft, and many are assuming this is the final end for Nokia as a phone maker.
However, as the saying goes, always read the small print. The small print on the sale of Nokia's phone division is very interesting, especially one particular section:
Microsoft has agreed to a 10 year license arrangement with Nokia to use the Nokia brand on current Mobile Phones products [i.e. on Asha feature phones, not on Lumia smartphones]. Nokia will continue to own and maintain the Nokia brand. Under the terms of the transaction, Microsoft has agreed to a 10 year license arrangement with Nokia to use the Nokia brand on current and subsequently developed products based on the Series 30 and Series 40 operating systems. Upon the closing of the transaction, Nokia would be restricted from licensing the Nokia brand for use in connection with mobile device sales for 30 months and from using the Nokia brand on Nokia's own mobile devices until December 31, 2015.
In other words, after the phone division is sold to Microsoft, what's left of the independent Nokia will:
1. Retain the Nokia brand name, Microsoft has not bought the name at all, so Nokia Lumias will now become Microsoft Lumias (which, incidentally, might explain why "LUMIA" was always written bigger than "Nokia" on the adverts).
2. This independent Nokia will be able to use the Nokia brand name on its own phones (including phones running Sailfish, Android or any other OS they choose) from 1st January 2016.
...and this is pretty much what the terms of Nokia's 2011 Windows exclusivity deal stated anyway. In effect, what's left of Nokia has asked for some cash in exchange for getting rid of their loss-making phones division.
If the independent company Nokia (which now just does network equipment and mapping services) can stay afloat for the next few years, they will be able to start selling Nokia-branded smartphones from January 1st 2016 onwards without any links to Microsoft whatsoever. And, as long as they're not sold under the Nokia brand before 2016, they could start developing and making phones right away.
Is this Nokia's fabled "Plan B"? Letting Microsoft have the phones division so they could eventually have another shot at making smartphones independently? Seems a heck of a price to pay, but if that's what they have in mind then it would make sense for what's left of Nokia to start working on rebuilding their phones division right now.
...and the Way Back
To put it in really simple terms, here's three ways we may see the Nokia brand back on smartphones (and they would almost certainly be non-Windows smartphones, possibly Sailfish).
All of these plans depend on Nokia's brand having some kind of residual value after two years absence from the smartphone market, which is possible if Nokia can keep its name visible in consumer products such as its mapping service or other products (other services or even non-mobile devices).
These plans also depend on Nokia's leadership having vision and strength to see a long-term plan through, and having a desire to be in the smartphone business. This is maybe the biggest stumbling block as Nokia's leadership's lack of vision over the past 5+ years is what caused its downfall in the first place. However, perhaps things will change.
Plan R: A Nokia Reset
2013 - 2015: Nokia (what's left of it, i.e. the networks and mapping divisions) gradually starts up a brand new phones division from scratch, possibly based on Android (or maybe even Sailfish?). Its devices cannot be released under the Nokia brand, but the division itself can exist and the devices can be released under other brands.
Mid - Late 2015: Nokia announces that it is releasing a Nokia-branded smartphone when the rights revert to it in 2016.
1st January 2016: The first new Nokia-branded smartphone since 2013 is launched.
Plan J: Welcoming Jolla back to the fold
2013 - 2015: Nokia carries on as a Networks and Mapping company, but at some point purchases Jolla. Jolla carries on as before, releasing Sailfish devices under the Jolla brand, and Nokia's cash is enough to help it get established.
Mid - Late 2015: Nokia announces that Jolla's latest device will be released under the Nokia brand when the rights revert in 2016.
1st January 2016: The first Nokia-branded SailfishOS device (the Nokia Jolla?) is released, returning Nokia to the path it departed from in 2011.
Plan L: Licensing the name alone
2013 - 2015: Nokia carries on as a Networks and Mapping company, but at some point licenses the post-2016 smartphone rights to an existing manufacturer, probably a company that isn't doing too well under its own brand (difficult to predict at this stage, but someone like LG?).
Mid - Late 2015: This other manufacturer announces the licensing deal, stating that their first Nokia-branded smartphone will be launched in 2016
1st January 2016: The first Nokia-in-name-only smartphone is released, with both design and manufacturing done entirely outside Nokia.
...so, that's how Nokia could now come back to phones. Will it? It's difficult to tell, the people running the company over the past five years don't appear to have shown much interest in long-term strategy over short-term spreadsheet-based tactics.
If this really is the end for Nokia as a phone maker, we can only hope that the platform openness they once championed manages to live on through companies like Jolla. In the end, however much sentimental value a brand has, it's the spirit behind it that matters.