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Nokia: The first year of the Elopcalypse

Timing is everything

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Analysis As the sun sets on Nokia World 2011, you have to pinch yourself to believe the transformation from a year ago. The last Nokia World in 2010 was addressed by an outgoing lame duck CEO, and his Number Two roared that "Nokia is Back!" before adding that he, too, was packing his suitcase and leaving. Symbian was still an unhappy independent foundation, and Meego seems like a really strange dream. Even the extraordinary "Burning Platforms" memo now seems so long ago.

The "Great Betrayal", as some loyalists see it, of 11 February, where incoming CEO Stephen ditched both Meego and Linux and bet the future on historical enemy Microsoft, now seems a right one. But boy, does that "Elopcalyspse" still rankle. Just sample some of the comments here (or anywhere) to see how much.

"Would it be possible to get a Meego version of this design?" asks one punter at the company's Conversations website – a question to which you know the answer is going to be no.

The 11 February Elopcalypse was the correct decision to make. Elop looked beyond the UI and judged that the wider network of partner relationships – providers of content and third party applications – are as important today as the surface impressions. As a manufacturer, you need to design something great. But you also need the Sunday Times app, or the Kindle app, and a cooler range of games than just Angry Birds. Elop saw the smartphone market narrowing to two platforms, and a mad scramble for third place. And he reckoned Nokia really didn't have a choice.

The reason is timing.

This week I've been reading Crackers*, the Steve Jobs biography. I was startled to be reminded that the Jobs only twigged that Google had ripped off his iPhone UI in January 2010 – at which point he vowed to get justice "until his dying breath". This is strange. The first Android handset rolled out, to great indifference, in late 2008. But by spring 2009, it was getting rave reviews. We thought the HTC Magic was a "terrific" contender.

Now keep in mind – and this is important – that product development cycles are 18 months.

In the summer of 2008, Nokia spun the official stewardship of Symbian out to an independent organisation, in anticipation of Android. Nokia was the largest shareholder in the Symbian OS company, which back then boasted an impressive list of licensees. The launch of the first Google handset was a few months away, but everyone knew what was coming. Google had shown off a user interface that carrier customers regarded as "good enough" to compete with the iPhone. Google would bundle branded services – GMail and Google Maps – with the system. Developers were really enthusiastic; you only needed to know Java to get up to speed. It looked like a tidal wave approaching. Nokia correctly reckoned its licensees would find it difficult to justify paying royalties when the alternative not only looked so attractive, but was free**.

Creating the Symbian Foundation only added an extra level of political bureaucracy. The licensees rapidly cooled on the platform, but Nokia was still committed to opening the Symbian OS source code, which took another 18 months. And, as we documented here, Nokia lost more time while its engineers argued over Qt: "two thousand man years on UIs that didn't work".

Nokia lost 18 months through infighting and poor political decisions. In this time it was unable to repair Symbian, or launch Meego.

For some reason, Android didn't register as a threat in the Jobsian Mind until after Google had produced its own-brand Android phone, the Nexus, which pissed off a lot of Android licensees. Jobs was right, the wave of phones that arrived in January 2010 were gunning for the iPhone. And Google had been able to build up a head of steam, a network of third-party developers, an "ecosystem" to use the dreaded word, for Android in under a year.

If Nokia had been able to push out a slick platform in late 2009 or early 2010 it might have been different. But by then, it was beginning its drop from the leading position to third in the smartphone market share. Even if Nokia had shipped the N9 a year earlier, it would have been very difficult to persuade content partners and developers to aim for a platform that is fourth or fifth.

The Windows Phone is a long way short of what Nokia would ideally like to base phones on – I've been told as much, discreetly, several times. Despite the archaic underpinnings of Windows CE, WP is a very young platform: supporting one chip, and one screen size.

But look how many of Nokia's problems WP has already solved. Developers really like working with the tools. Remember how many awful attempts at email Nokia gave us over the years? The native Symbian mail client still doesn't work well. The social media widget is terrible. Office support is cludgy. Windows Phone handles all of this really gracefully. Most punters have never seen it, and will be impressed how it flies out of the box – like the proverbial shit off a shovel – with none of the juddery "Android lag".

This might be the best piece of work, aesthetically, that Microsoft has ever done. And it did Nokia another favour by cutting their notorious software engineering department out of the loop. The phrase "Nokia can't do software" had become an industry cliche, but Nokia does an end run around most of them.

Most importantly, it has a real chance of taking third place. The operators, who fear a future controlled by either Apple or Google, want an alternative.

The windows of opportunity in technology are really incredibly narrow. If you stumble, and lose a year, you can find you've lost so much momentum that you have to do something drastic to catch up. The Meego and Symbian diehards have a point: their platforms have advantages, one of which is not having to pay royalties.

But it's about much more than the UI. Nokia had to change, because in 2008 and 2009 it wasn't focused on the competition, and underestimated the size of the task. It thought that a UI would do.

Symbian still doesn't have a Kindle app. And neither does Meego. ®

Bootnotes

* That's really what it should have been called.

** Android isn't free, we now know. Microsoft will make half a billion dollars this year from Android licensees, according to one estimate, from royalties. What goes around comes around.

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