For onlookers in New York, it was as though Nokia’s Stephen Elop and his former boss at Microsoft Steve Ballmer had never parted company as they took the stage to launch the Finnish group’s latest smartphones.
Their mutual fondness for sport found its way into Wednesday’s presentation, which ended with the broad-shouldered Ballmer throwing an arm over his bullish, Canadian protégé like a slightly awkward older uncle.
The duet on the advanced features of the forthcoming Windows devices may have been sung in perfect harmony, but analysts struck a bum note. There were doubts that these would be catchy enough for savvy smartphone customers waiting to see instead what the hit-makers of the handset world in Cupertino would produce next week.
Indeed, some had hoped that the pair would deliver something more – an equity agreement, or even a rumoured merger – with the company’s shares slumping on confirmation of two well-trailed Windows phones, albeit replete with advanced features in imaging and mapping.
Radical changes would not be without precedent for Nokia’s first non-Finnish chief executive. In fact, it had been only 18 months since the Canadian last stood on stage with his former boss to announce he had gambled Nokia’s future in smartphones on the still unproven Windows system and abandoned its own operating software ambitions.
This was to be the jump from the “burning platform” so vividly painted for Nokia employees in an internal memo, although there are many analysts who fear that these waters could be just as dangerous.
Born and educated in Ontario, Mr Elop, 48, rose to prominence at Macromedia in the 1990s, where he was credited with steering the Flash-designer through the post-dotcom troubles as chief executive before joining Adobe following its 2005 acquisition of the company.
Former colleagues described him as product-focused and likeable, with his crew-cut army hair and emphasis on the importance of sales and marketing earning the nickname “the General” among more laid-back counterparts in Silicon Valley.
He joined Juniper as chief operating officer in 2006, and then Microsoft a year later, in what was regarded as a meteoric rise through to the big West Coast companies. He became a member of Microsoft’s senior leadership team as head of its business division, where he was given plaudits for handling the Office suite of services.
He joined Nokia in 2010 when it still carried the corpulence of its once world-conquering handset success. Bloated and bureaucratic, its many technicians had ideas that looked exciting on paper but never saw the market.
Nokians say that Mr Elop has steered soundly through the inevitable restructuring, managing to keep spirits up while chopping away at one in five jobs to make the company hungrier in the fast-moving battle for smartphone dominance. His style remains “no-nonsense and down-to-earth”, according to one Nokia employee.
But his bet on Windows has yet to pay out. Shares have slumped two-thirds since the Microsoft agreement, taking a company that had a peak market capitalisation of about €300bn to just €7.3bn, with falling sales causing heavy operating losses and a ferocious cash burn that has forced its debt rating to be junked.
Even so, some in the industry see Mr Elop’s own future as safer than Nokia’s. If he fails to pull the group from its tailspin, says one telecoms executive, then he can with some justification say that it was too far gone. But if he succeeds, then he will be a hero. Either way, the relationship with his former employees has done little to dampen speculation that he will one day again grace Microsoft’s Redmond campus.