Microsoft, Nokia, and MeeGo: Are they all doomed?
Windows and Linux pass in the night
The beat from the Silicon Valley drums has been that Microsoft is doomed because Windows is a PC operating system, phones outsell PCs, and Windows has struggled on mobile. QED.
It's true that Windows phones have lost market share – and that Microsoft is starting from zero in terms of market share on Windows Phone 7, an operating system that's not actually Windows as we know it and not the earlier version of Windows for devices, Windows CE.
On the other hand, devices are portrayed as the manifest destiny of Linux and open source. The current and anticipated success of Google's Android has helped reinforce this perception.
But this week, Microsoft and Linux did all but nod as they passed each other going in opposite directions.
Windows Phone is becoming Nokia's primary smartphone platform at a time when Nokia remains - just - the world's largest maker of such phones. Linux crossed over to PCs as Hewlett-Packard said it will ship laptops and desktops on webOS, the Linux-based operating system it now owns. HP is the world's largest PC maker and was - at least until recent times - Microsoft's biggest partner on Windows products and services.
But the grass is always greener on the other side, as both camps are about to find out.
Microsoft has just bought market share with its allliance witih Nokia, but it's a shrinking market, and there's a question over how much this deal can really help Windows. It might even make things worse for Nokia.
The first hurdle is engineering. Until now, Microsoft has kept tight control on the handsets running Windows Phone 7, to make sure the phones don't fail. But Nokia is a rat's nest of form factors. To try and get around this, the companies have said Nokia will contribute its expertise on hardware design and language support to put Windows Phone on a larger range of price points, market segments, and geographies.
But there's another problem.
Microsoft will have to rely on Nokia's engineering heritage to get Windows Phone working on its many and varied handsets, to make sure phones work and don't get a bad reputation for performance or reliability that'll damage its market share further as consumer turn off. Yet, Nokia has no experience of Windows Phone 7. Iit wasn't even in last year's original OEM line up.
A real problem for Nokia will come in actually keeping the engineering expertise it's famed for and will rely on.
Nokia's going all in with Microsoft, after spending years trying to avoid Windows. It joined and bought Symbian, hooked up with Intel on MeeGo for mobile Linux, and bought the Qt cross-platform brains. That means Nokia has now got an army with completely the wrong skills. They'll need to decide who will be retrained, will be cut, or who will simply decide to leave for new jobs. Nokia's engineers have already shown what they think of the deal.
The rub? Nokia might actually be forced to rely on Microsoft, a company with comparatively little experience in handset engineering. According to the companies' announcement, Nokia will at least have input into the Windows Phone roadmap. How much influence it has will depend on Microsoft, and its joint ventures in software have never been particularly successful.
Microsoft's hook up with Nokia could do more harm than good to Windows Phone's chances in terms of broad adoption by other OEMs. Not only will Nokia "help drive and define the future of Windows Phone", but "Nokia and Microsoft will closely collaborate on development, joint marketing initiatives and a shared development roadmap."
For HTC, Samsung, LG, Asus, and Dell, Microsoft's partnership with Nokia has powerful competitive ramifications: their biggest competitor will now help Microsoft build and sell the same phone operating system that they are trying to make money from. Nokia will not just specify what goes into Windows Phone. It will also try to ensure its handsets work best with the operating system. And then Nokia will try to get more consumers through aggressive marketing. It would be like Hewlett-Packard helping design and build Windows in the early days of Microsoft when it was also partnering with IBM, Dell, and others.
It's about now that Google's Android has to be looking like an attractive, independent option. And don't think Oracle's legal action against Google over claimed Java patent violations in Android will keep Windows Phone OEMs in the Microsoft camp through fear.
Open-source code licensing watcher Black Duck has told us that Samsung, LG, and Motorola, – all clients who sell Android handsets – are pressing ahead with Android regardless of the suit. Tim Yeaton, president and CEO, said: "They are not concerned about the Google versus Oracle battle on Android. They're more concerns with getting a new rev out."
But Nokia's partnership with Microsoft and the problems for Windows Phone don't represent pure upside for Linux and open-source. While Linux crossed over to the PC elsewhere, Nokia's commitment to Linux and open source is now in serious question.
In electing to put Windows Phone on its smart phones, Nokia has turned Symbian into a "franchise platform". That sounds like anybody still using Symbian will be allowed to license Symbian from Nokia. With Nokia, Symbian's chief patron, now committed to Windows and the non-Apple world picking Android, this is putting Symbian out to pasture.
MeeGo, the open-source mobile Linux project Nokia entered into with such flourish a year ago with Intel, has been demoted from a platform play to a "project".
Intel and Nokia were the biggest backers of MeeGo, a project that helped put Intel's chips in smartphones. With the prime phone maker now putting its bets on Windows, it's questionable how many MeeGo-phones will now be build. Nokia had committed to one MeeGo phone this year.
Intel has said it remains committed to MeeGo and welcomes Nokia's continued contribution to MeeGo open source. The MeeGo Project is officially housed with the Linux Foundation, which echoed Intel's comments, saying the chip giant is "really, really committed."
Foundation executive director Jim Zemlin told The Reg that while he's naturally disappointed with Nokia's choice to back Windows instead of MeeGo, MeeGo is a community project with input from people other than just Intel and Nokia.
Among those listed as MeeGo supporters are Acer, Novell, MontaVista Software, Wind River and a slew of car companies who've committed to MeeGo through the GENVI auto alliance.
"There are definitely people out there building real products," Zemlin said. "Like any open-source project, we are patient and open. We think that's important. Linus Torvalds has 20 yeas of experience of communities forming around Linux. These communities have a life of their own." ®