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Why Nokia failed: 'Wasted 2,000 man years' on UIs that didn't work

For want of a nail, the Kingdom was lost?

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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.

Dead ends

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.

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