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Nokia's Ovi can't fail - must fail

Rip it up and start again

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Comment It must be frustrating to sketch out a long-term technology roadmap in great depth, and see it come to fruition... only to goof on your own execution. But to do so repeatedly - as Nokia has - points to something seriously wrong.

Nokia spent more than a decade preparing for Tuesday this week, when it finally launched its own worldwide, all-phones application store. It correctly anticipated a software market for smartphones back in the mid-1990s, when it was choosing the technology to fulfill this vision.

That was just one of the bets that came good. Leafing through old copies of WiReD magazine from the dot.com era, filled with gushing praise for Enron, Global Crossing, and er, Zippies, I was struck by the quality of the foresight in a cover feature about Nokia. (Have a look for yourself.) WAP didn't work out, but I was struck by particularly Leningrad Cowboy Mato Valtonen's assessment that "mobile is the Internet with billing built in".

And so Nokia has been encouraging users to download applications for users. My ancient 6310i wants me to download applications. Every Nokia since has wanted me to, too. Seven years ago, the first Series 60 phone (the 7650) put the Apps client on the top level menu, next to Contacts and Messaging.

The problem is today, it's Apple and BlackBerry who have the thriving third party smartphone software markets. For six months, punters have been bombarded with iPhone ads showing what you can do with third-party apps. And yes, it's like Palm all over again, but they're very effective. So if Apple's store is the model, then what on earth is Ovi?

The launch was "an utter disaster" according to one blogger, or in a more measured assessment (from Ewan at All About Symbian), "rushed, early and not fit for public consumption". Nokia accepts second-best from Ovi, which apart from Maps is second-best in every category, the company all but admitted recently. But the Ovi application store deserves a Z-grade.

Web services or bust

It's now clear that it was simply too ambitious to roll out a store to so many territories and in particular, to so many device categories, in one Big Bang. The number of devices supported goes back six years - encompassing eight versions of Series 40 and three versions of S60.

We waited a couple of days until the server load eased up, and Bill Ray kicked the tyres here. On older devices it was mostly a miss. The mobile clients I've tried are painfully slow, don't have previews and can't distinguish between trialware and zero-priced applications. They either bill you in a foreign currency or simply drop you down a dead end.

The web version is even worse: try navigating through pages in Firefox, or try changing your default device in the preferences. The result is that every attempt to actually get applications is thwarted. Still, the pages fade in and out, in a very Web 2.0-style fashion. And maybe that's the clue.

Apple's App Store requires iTunes or the native client. iTunes is a familiar place for anyone who's shopped for songs, audiobooks or movies there. It's fast and slick, there's a preview for everything, and pricing is quite clear. You're only asked for personal details when you reach the acquisition stage. You get the same experience on the iPhone/Touch native client.

There's really no need for a web-based version of the Ovi store at all, and piping everything through the Nokia PC suite (or some Mac equivalent) would at least encourage people to try the exciting Nokia PC Suite add-ons, such as Nokia Map Manager and er... Nokia PC Suite Cleaner. Apparently that cleans up after earlier Nokia incompatibility cock-ups.

(This is an ominous sign of trouble ahead: like Palm designing its stylus dual-purpose, one of which is to make rebooting easier after a crash. It's not something the user should ever see.)

But Nokia has arguably far more at stake here than Apple or RIM. Once you've spunked $8.1bn on a mapping software company - shouldn't you want people to use the maps - and the potential upselling opportunity? Or are the maps just a hippy giveaway?

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