Mobile Diary: Symbian RIP

From the Financial Times (via Gizmodo), a report on the imminent death of Symbian, Nokia’s venerable smartphone operating system, that dominated the pre-iPhone smartphone world with devices like the N95.

Looking back, the Symbian era resembles the automobile industry before the Model T: a young, exciting, industry with many manufacturers experimenting with many different technologies and configurations. Eventually the industry settled down to a “standard” model (gasoline/diesel engine, steering wheel, gas and brake pedals, etc.) and development proceed with those common assumptions in mind.

I worked at Nokia through the rise (and fall) of Symbian devices, starting with the first Nokia Symbian device, the 7650, in 2002. I spent many years promoting the OS and Nokia’s S60 platform to operators and developers, and so was well aware of its strengths and weaknesses, and the enormous impact of the iOS and touchscreen revolution on the platform and the company. I have fond memories of Symbian, but don’t really lament its passing.

Here’s a peek into the Symbian era:

Scariest picture in the mobile industry

The latest blog post from VisionMobile includes what is possibly the scariest image in the mobile industry, unless you work for Apple:

The most impressive achievement of Apple in the mobile space is not the number of devices it has sold, but the amount of profit it has managed to generate on those devices. Apple’s makes the sort of money on hardware (60% on iPhone 3GS according to this article) that was one thought impossible even for software businesses, where the cost of “hardware” is essentially zero. To put things in perspective, when Nokia was on top of the mobile world in the early 2000’s, their hardware margins of 15-20% (and overall margins above 10%) were considered extremely impressive for the industry.

Of course, the chart above shows percentages, not absolute numbers. Apple’s impressive position is due both to its own success and the inability of its competitors to keep up. If those competitors (or new ones) get their acts together, then Apple’s dominance of the mobile profit pie will be challenged.

According to Business Insider, this may already be happening, as competition from lower-priced products is forcing Apple to ship more lower-price (and hence lower-margin) products itself. Samsung, the profit number two, is producing impressive devices, and one can never count out Amazon, which is willing to sell products at cost in order to attract more customers to its ecosystem.

After all, nothing lasts forever…

nokia 7650

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.

Beyond the black box?

In the CNET preview of next week’s CES show in Las Vegas (see video below), the panelists mentioned that the hardware designs of mobile phones and tablets are very similar: some sort of shiny black rectangle with a big screen.

That got me thinking: is there any room in this black rectangle world for the sort of creative hardware innovation that we are now used to seeing on the software side? This thought occurred to me earlier, when I pulled out my old Nokia N90 after reading some recent praise of this classic (2005!) device.

I remember demonstrating this device at a couple of trade shows in 2006 or so, when the Motorola RAZR was, for many people, the coolest thing around in mobile. People were pretty impressed when I showed them this new camcorder, and then turned it, Transformer style, into a flip phone.

What do you think? Is there a way out of the black box, and will we see anything like this at CES next week? I won’t be in Vegas for the show, and so will need to follow the updates online.

Vodpod videos no longer available.

Forward into the past

For New Year’s 2012, a look back at the state of the mobile industry in 2002, when things were so much different, and so much the same.

nokia 7650

In November, 2002, The Economist heralded the first “smartphones” from the two dominant players at the time, Nokia and Microsoft. They predicted a “fight for digital dominance” between the two, concluding that “the firms are sure to become opponents in what promises to be a long and bitter fight.”

Of course, nobody, not even The Economist, could have predicted the iPhone revolution that re-defined the smartphone in 2007, or the alliance of the two early opponents that followed. Despite that, at least one of the predictions from 2002 still holds true, even if it applies to different “camps” than in 2002:

“…the collision of the computing and mobile-phone industries seems likely to lead to a surge of innovation, as the two camps fight it out to create a truly personal computing and communications device, with far wider appeal than the misleadingly named personal computer. And as these titans slug it out, it will be consumers who emerge as the winners.”

Best wishes for a happy, healthy, and successful 2012!