Nokia: down but not out?

I wasn’t going to write about Nokia’s latest travails until I read Farhad Manjoo’s article in Pando Daily. What got me going was this statement:

At its peak in the early and mid 2000s, the company fell victim to its own hubris. It began thinking of itself as an unassailable winner of the future, as a mature company that didn’t need to invest in the next big thing. Rather than spend its resources on building a next-generation software ecosystem—an OS that depended on novel interfaces and sensors, that allowed for outside development, that offered a brilliant user experience

The sad irony is that in the early 2000s, Nokia did develop “an OS that depended on novel interfaces and sensors, that allowed for outside development, that offered a brilliant user experience”, at least “brilliant” in the context of the mobile world at that time. At the time of the first iPhone, which at first did not support native app development, Nokia shipped millions of customizable Symbian smartphones (like the N95) that enabled a wide variety of 3rd party apps and novel uses like virtual spray-painting and driving toy trucks, which I was on hand to demonstrate at several trade shows in the late 2000s.

I agree with Horace Dediu, who commented in Quora that Nokia (and Symbian) failed because their innovations were trapped by the preconceptions of their business model, where the only real customers were mobile operators, not consumers. Horace writes, “Symbian was designed to conform to the needs of device vendors first and mobile operators second. The needs of users and developers were never considered high priorities. This is not by mere oversight but by deliberate, repeated decisions driven by the economics of the phone business for a decade.”

In practice, this meant that if you were a developer in 2007 and wanted to get your apps on Nokia devices, the only options open to you were to find a way to get your app “on deck” by making a deal with a major operator, or somehow (it was never clear to us in the platform marketing department) find your way into the on-device catalog of the Nokia Download! service.

To be fair, the other device vendors and operators didn’t have options that were any better. True, developers could always ship apps through GetJar, but that service didn’t have a mobile catalog app for phones to make downloading and installation easy for consumers.

Given the state of affairs in 2007-2008, the Apple revolution looks even more impressive. They came into the business from the outside, without the baggage of the incumbent vendors and their business models. They were able to take advantage of their design and product expertise, and their understanding of the consumer market, to deliver a truly brilliant consumer experience, followed closely by what we in the marketing biz recognized as a “complete end-to-end” developer experience: fun devices, great tools, and a (more or less) direct path to market through the App Store.

To its credit, Nokia tried to respond to the Apple (and later Android) challenge by recasting itself as a software and services company, first by investing heavily in mapping and navigation by buying Navteq (for $8.1 billion!) and Gate5. This was followed shortly by the more ambitious Ovi services initiative, a plan to deliver a suite of ad-supported consumer services.

As a Nokia employee outside the Ovi organization, I was too close to the Ovi experience to have an objective opinion about its strengths and weaknesses. I am convinced, though, that the focus on Ovi meant that Nokia took its eye off the smartphone ball at a critical time. Instead of investing in services, Nokia could have focused more on rebuilding Symbian into a smartphone platform that could really compete with the new entrants from the West Coast. Of course, it’s possible that even this may not have been enough. One thing that became clear during the late 2000’s was that Nokia was never really able to shed its hardware roots and truly embrace software and services as the core of its business.

Given this history, I’m not surprised that Nokia ended up making the deal it made with Microsoft, shifting its focus back to its core strengths of hardware design and manufacturing. If Nokia is going to come out of its current slump, it will do so as a much smaller and much less ambitious company, but one with a solid core business that builds on its biggest strengths. I want to believe that the managers and directors of a 150-year old company will be able to plan for the longer-term, beyond the current iPhone/Android duopoly. We’re still in the Model T days of personal mobility, so there’s plenty of change to come.

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Life with Lumia

Lumia 800I just bought a Nokia Lumia 800 to replace the Android phone I lost last week, taking advantage of that loss to indulge my curiosity and residual loyalty to my former employer. I chose the 800 because it’s smaller than the US-spec 900 and, frankly, sexier than the 710 which my carrier, T-Mobile, offers in their portfolio. That meant ordering one online from one of the many phone vendors I found through Google Shopping.

I received a brand new phone in the original package, and after I changed the sprache from German to English (my phone was customized for Vodafone DE), I was ready to go. After just over a week with the new toy, I have a pretty good idea of what works and what doesn’t. The bottom line is that I’m really happy with the phone and the OS, despite some significant weaknesses. This is pretty much what earlier reviews concluded.

The good

  • Great to look at, fun to use: the team at Microsoft did an excellent job designing and implementing the Windows Phone interface. It’s fast, logical, and simple, and has plenty of lovely little graphic and animation effects that make it just fun to use and play with
  • Easy integration with Google and social: it was very easy to set up integration with my Google accounts. After one simple setting, I now have my Google mail, calendar, and contacts on my phone. Adding Facebook and Twitter to the mix was also quite easy. Now my contacts are linked to their respective social profiles, and I can easily share posts and photos to any of those services.
  • Decent maps and navigation: Nokia Maps has come a long way; it’s now a very useful and convenient tool for mapping and turn-by-turn navigation. One minor quibble is the separation of Maps from “Nokia Drive” (the turn-by-turn service). The ability to download maps to the phone is also very useful, although I think the downloaded maps work only for Drive and not for Maps.
  • Most of the apps I need: I was concerned that the Windows Marketplace would not yet have the apps I use on a regular basis, and indeed there are gaps in the offering compared with Android and the Apple App Store. Despite this, I found most of the apps I use regularly (Shazam, Endomondo, Flickr, Twitter, The Weather Channel, TuneIn, Haaretz), and decent substitutes for the ones that weren’t there (Evernote instead of Astrid, bubblegum instead of Instagram).
  • FM radio: this is what I expect from a Nokia phone, and what I missed on my Samsung Android device.

The not so good

  • Where are the profiles? I guess Nokia had to give up one of its best (IMHO) features to conform with the Windows Phone program. It now takes a swipe and three clicks to turn off the ringer, and I don’t have more fine-grained control over other sounds.
  • Weak headphone output: FM radio is great, but hard to hear with my headphones. Perhaps this is actually a feature; less chance of doing even more damage to my hearing.
  • Imperfect Outlook integration: I was surprised to find that I can’t sync my Lumia with my company’s Outlook server out of the box. According to Microsoft, the “Exchange ActiveSync mailbox policy has been implemented with parameters the WP7 device cannot completely enforce.” I had no problem syncing Outlook with my older (Symbian) N8. I would think this, of all things, should work seamlessly.

…and the really impressive

Perhaps the most impressive feature of Windows Phone (and the Lumia phones): the integration of bar code scanning into the search function. Oh yes, it reads and translates text too. Very cool.