Nokia : Death by a thousand cuts

CEO Stephen Elop‘s deliberately inflammatory email within Nokia last week seems designed to pave the way for justifying Nokia’s decision to ditch Symbian and move the Nokia brand across to Windows Phone 7. There are so many reasons why this is a bad day for the mobile industry, so let’s articulate a few:

  • Nokia have expertly managed to piss off quite a lot of its devoted developer base. Qt could have been tied into WP7 to at least allow the dev base that did exist to move stuff they were doing into the new world. As it is, those who wrote Symbian code are probably not going to run headlong at a chance to start writing for Windows. And, if we’re being honest, though WP7 has now got an app base about as large as the massively superior HP WebOS, it’s not exactly overrun with developer activity. This lack of traction is hurting, especially when you compare it to the Apple Store and Android Marketplace
  • It’s a pity Nokia hadn’t considered going in for Palm when HP picked them up. WebOS running on Nokia hardware could have been a compelling mix. Now we’ll never know.
  • And, in a comical move today, Nokia have tried to claim the smartphone market is essentially a three horse race between WP7, Apple and Google. RIM, of course, took immediate umbrage, while most of the rest of us just had to sit down and hold our sides just to recover from Microsoft’s belief that they’re anywhere near Blackberry yet, let alone Android and iOS. Nokia might have a large slice of installed base, but their share is sliding and a lack of strong products to bolster that slide will only make things even worse.
  • Nokia’s best strategy may have been to go down the Android route. While there are lots of Android phones in the market, Nokia’s hardware is still a heavy plus point in their favour. Android is als oan environment that is hihly tunable and can be used across a varierty of  phone specs. WP7 is, weirdly, rather more prescriptive about its needs. Nokia’s phones running Android could have managed in the top end of the market and in rhe mid range. Instead, they have WP7 which has an underwhelming feature set and has aired on fairly unremarkable phones so far. It hasn’t really set the world alight.
  • And then there are tablets. Or rather, in Nokia’s case, there aren’t. Miscorsoft are not looking at WP7 as a tablet OS at all. Meanwhile iOS and Android Honeycomb look pretty much bedded in for the long haul. MeeGo is dead in the water, so Nokia don’t have a tablet entry into that rapidly growing market. This is a worry. Meanwhile, HP’s entry, the TouchPad looks like it could actually give Apple a few sleepless nights:  it looks a very polished product indeed.  In Redmond, Steve Ballmer is still trying to push Windows 7 as the tablet OS of choice, but this is starting to look just a touch desperate. Trying to port 7 to ARM is only going to make Microsoft’s portfolio more confused and cluttered. While this happens, both Apple and Google have very strong offerings that look coherent and unifeid across their entire ecosystems. Throwing money at the problem isn’t going to solve it, especially when both Google and Apple have just as much cash they can pour inot their projects.
  • But this is a good move for Microsoft on their terms, at least on paper. They push their OS into the market on the back of a big hardware company (more of that in a sec) and can try to gain a foothold. Unfortunately, Nokia’s WP7 phones will take a while to finsh and get to market. In the meantime Android pdates are coming and we’re probably only a couple of months from iPhone 5. This will make the need for Micrsoft to up their update cycle game for WP7 all the more urgent as the OS feature set and experience still lags behind the competition. Don’t get me wrong, I would actually like to see WP7 gain a hold in the market, just so that there is some push for innovation and competition, but this doesn’t seem like the right way to do it.
  • What does this mean for Nokia? Well, their attmepts to control the vertical integration of their products, like Apple have done so successfully, is pretty much dead in the water now. They will lose developer momentum. And all because Nokia just didn’t get software. While Symbian was a great product in its time, the word has moved and, unfortunately, neither Symbian nor Nokia moved quicke enough with it. Their management fo the whole Symbian project left much to be desired, while the company culture seemed fixated on hardware. While the M8 has a lovely 12MP camera, the environment you use it in isn’t so great. Not a great selling point.

In all, Nokia seem to be the ones losing out here.  They’ve been forced into an alliance that many inside the company probably don’t really want, which will only serve to give Microsoft a toehold if it succeeds, and will burn them both badly if it fails. Time will tell which way things will go, but if I were Nokia I would be casting anxious glances over my shoulder at the past, and how previous incarnations of Windows Mobile were handled. Have Microsoft learned from their past mistakes or are they doomed to repeat them, and drag Nokia down in the process?

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