Nokia's Ovi can't fail - must fail
Rip it up and start again
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?
'Strategy' is stretching it a bit
We all know in hindsight Nokia that should have focussed on making the mobile and PC clients perfect, and limiting the number of devices at launch to a subset of those supported. Anything before S60 3rd edition didn't really need to be there, and there's a case for limiting to devices launched in the past 18 months, even though there are a lot of N73s and E61s out there.
Separating the excellent applications from chaff such as movie trailers and wallpaper might have helped. There are still a handful of good applications out there, despite diminishing interest in Symbian, the pick of which is the best mobile email client in the world, Profimail. (Measured in ease of use, features, and the fewest seconds it takes to achieve a given task - a formidable combo.)
But again that goes against the Web 2.0 ethos of "stick any old crap up there - and let the Hive Mind sort it out". No thanks, I don't want MOSH 2.0.
And as for games - it would be flattering Nokia to call the six year N-Gage adventure a "strategy". Again, it saw the market early, but didn't follow through. Every now and again the multi-billion dollar investment veers back into view, only to disappear again. Is it N-Gage or Ovi Gaming? The few titles that are out there aren't too bad, but again Nokia's delivery strategy makes them hard to obtain. Meanwhile you can't escape people playing games on their iPhones, or iPod Touches.
Operation Rescue Nokia
The market could benefit from a healthy Nokia software market, so here are some suggestions. There's a valuable lesson to be learned. In business as in war, you make the most of your assets while trying to minimise your weaknesses. Nokia's Ovi Store does the opposite: it emphasises the complexity and lack of focus at the company, and its disorganisation. If your first and only experience of Nokia was Ovi, you would never believe the company could ship 50 products into 120 markets with military efficiency.
Firstly, Nokia should focus on people's needs - and applications that make the phone useful and fun - and not building up a "a portfolio of web services". It's already invested heavily in Maps and games - just make them easy to try and buy.
Ovi means "door" in Finnish
Secondly, the Ovi brand has made no impact on phone users at all. There's no shame in abandoning confusing or invisible brands. Confine Ovi to mean boring, management services like backups, or data transfer, or services discovery. These shouldn't be underestimated; they should give users security and peace of mind.
Thirdly, the vast majority of users want to do a few tasks simply - take note of the Magners TV ad which now singles out flash smartphones that are impossible to use. Nokia has inched towards better usability with the E71 and the 5800, but this needs to be a company-wide goal. Showing photos on the family TV, sharing photos with a small group - all much more useful than the 2.0 guff.
And finally, the managers responsible for putting together the Ovi Store should be put on Nokia's naughty step - and left there for the Finnish winter. ®