Why Nokia failed: 'Wasted 2,000 man years' on UIs that didn't work
For want of a nail, the Kingdom was lost?
When Nokia CEO Stephen Elop announced that Nokia was abandoning its development of its own smartphone platforms and APIs, and betting the farm on somebody else's, many people asked why it was necessary.
Nokia had spent 15 years trying to develop and maintain its own software, which it regarded as strategic to maintaining its independence. Elop's decisions have ensured that Nokia didn't just get another option to run alongside its own, but it would abandon these, writing off the investments it had already made. In his opinion, these weren't good enough.
But why? Nokia had (and still has) one proven and successful smartphone platform, and had spent years bringing another one to maturity. It had, belatedly, unified both under one API for developers. Yet Elop judged that neither of these two high-end platforms would ever gain the developer support they would need to stay competitive.
Nokia had been watching the Symbian software as it was created, since the mid-1990s, and licensed the operating system before Symbian was even created. Symbian proved to have many advantages over the recent competition in some important areas. With its mature and well-debugged phone stacks, it is better for phone calls than any other smartphone: it drops fewer calls, the calls sound better, and it uses the antenna better. Symbian's power consumption and performance on comparable hardware are also best of class, despite the baroque middleware added over the years by Nokia. Yet Nokia's phones were considered uncompetitive in the marketplace, because new products from Apple and Android had raised the bar for ease of use, particularly for new data applications, and Nokia's user experience was awful.
The UX matters: it's the first thing potential customers see when a friend passes them their new phone in the pub. A well-designed UX is consistent, forgiving and rewarding; Nokia's user experience was inconsistent, unforgiving and hostile. Nokia's designers honed in with meticulous attention to the wrong detail. Apple's iPhoneOS UI had some unusual features – smooth graphics that played transitions at 60-frames-per-second, thanks to a dedicated graphics chip. Instead of redesigning the entire UX, Nokia acquired expensive professional-grade video cameras to determine the animation speed, and having confirmed that yes, it was 60fps, tried to recreate the transitions.
Touch input was welded onto Nokia's Symbian S60 user interface – which had originally been designed for alphanumeric keypad-based phones back in 2000 – and it was a clumsy fit. Punters expected a "direct manipulation" UI, which this plainly wasn't. Long overdue rationalisations to the confusing S60 menu hierarchy or settings weren't executed, making it very hard to do the simplest things.
Nokia showed a demo in 2007, nine months after the iPhone was announced, but before it had even landed on non-US shores. "We can do this passing fad for touch screens, too," Nokia assured developers.
But it was, at best, a stop-gap. And Nokia was still relying on this ugly mess for its "flagship" two years later. The question as to why Nokia surrendered its independence lies in why it took so long to engineer a competitive UI, and then under new management, decided that it couldn't.
I've called it the "for want of a nail" question: if Nokia had a UI, it would not have had to lose its independence. And as Nokia gave up its independence, Europe lost its last global technology platform. US and Japanese companies now dictate the market.
Now the lid is being lifted on this saga.
A great introduction comes from veteran mobile developer and co-author of a couple of technical Symbian books, Mark Wilcox. Wilcox had worked inside and outside Nokia before joining the Symbian Foundation several months after it launched. I'm surprised his account hasn't got more coverage in blogland since it was published last week. It would be the basis for a good disaster movie for techies – but one where the ending is so depressing nobody would want to watch it.
Through incredible software mismanagement, Nokia simultaneously pursued two dead ends, writes Wilcox, neither of which worked. Nokia management had belatedly realised it needed a better story to tell developers, and in early 2008 acquired Trolltech, which has a very successful and well-regarded C++ framework called Qt. Qt doesn't specify a look and feel, though, but the Trolltech had plenty of experience creating these for potential customers, and saw little point in simply recoding a legacy UI that already looked dated. Having done as they were asked, and made Symbian programmable via Qt, they set about modernising and simplifying UI development.
Nokia globally outsells all other mobile phones and only faces any real competition for the top slot from Samsung and LG. What the fuck does Elop think he is fixing?
fingers in the pie
A very excellent point.
It may not be a bad idea to drop the software idea and go with the best hardware you can slap together. But, focusing upon an incomplete and inferior software solutions is pure nuts. And it will likely ruin the company for all time.
Six months from now Nokia may realize its mistake but it may be too late. Changes are the branches will be trimmed such that six or eight months down the way they will not have the staff to even consider going with the Android market as well.
And there will never be any differentiation with the Microsoft phones. Microsoft will not allow it.
Taking some money now and paying high license fees later is going to doom Nokia. It will never be competitive with Android devices. Not in price. Not in technology. And not in hardware either. Just look at the Atrix, Zoom and others.
Yes, there is going to be a lot of competition in the Android space but going with Microsoft does nothing to help Nokia compete. The Microsoft platform today is inferior in many ways. And Microsoft will preclude the kind of products Nokia may need in order to compete.
I can just imagine the trouble Nokia is going to have once the Android tablets get going in 2011. Not to mention Android phones, etc. Nokia will have one phone model constrained by Microsoft. And it will cost too much. Microsoft will insist upon getting a license fee for each unit sold. And Nokia will be limited in flexibility and strapped by high license costs.
If you design and develop hardware you compete against the likes of HTC, Motorola, etc. Elop thinks he must compete against Google. Google is not the competition at all. Handset makers are the competition. And all of those competitors have Microsoft too if they want it. And they can drop and run with Android if that makes sense at the moment. Nokia is strapped. Even if the Microsoft OS is successful Nokia still can not win.
picking a slow horse looses the race
A decision to focus upon hardware may be valid. But, picking just one OS to run with is a huge mistake.
Nokia's competitors are HTC, Motorola, etc. Focusing only upon Microsoft is a huge mistake. That horse is slow out of the gate and may never catch up. And even if it does, Nokia looses out on the entire Android marketplace.
When you have no idea who your competitors are, you are bound to lose. Google is not a Nokia competitor. They do not make handsets. And now Nokia does not make software. Basing a decision on trying to find competition for Google is a huge mistake.