Microsoft bricking lesson bodes badly for Elop's Brave New Nokia
There are times when you need a bureaucracy...
Not to heap more misery upon Nokia employees, but if you are a depressed Finnish employee, we recommend you stop reading now and turn to this adorable story about a rabbit adopting some kittens. What you are about to read throws Elop's challenge to the company into a whole new light.
Earlier this week Microsoft issued, and then withdrew, a software update for its Windows Phone devices. According to Microsoft it affected "a small number" of users of Samsung WP7 phones. For some users the consequences were serious - the phone was "bricked", meaning it was not only non-functional, but couldn't be restored into a working state by the user.
It's a nightmare for the manufacturer, because it requires an expensive return to a repair centre, and the customer, once burned, is much less likely to become a repeat purchaser. That "small number" may be as high as ten per cent.
Bizarrely, the patch didn't contain any new features. It was a notification about new features to come, the equivalent of that little alert you get in XP telling you that there's a new version of Software Update available - which really means you're several hours (and reboots) away from having an update to the system.
How this managed to create such severe (and for the OEMs, expensive) consequences is a mystery I won't try to explain here. But it does shed light on the magnitude of the task Nokia's new CEO Stephen Elop has set the company. I'm not sure the risk has been fully factored in by analysts.
Elop has bet the future of Nokia on Windows Phone, and destroyed the alternative options to ensure that there can be no turning back. There is no Plan B. This means Nokia's fortunes are entirely tied to the quality of Microsoft's system software. So far, WP has received warm reviews, but it's very much at version 1.0, its limitations are well known, and there's a long, long way to go. And one of those small things buried halfway down a "to do" list is firmware updates.
Don't touch that cable...
Until fairly recently, only one manufacturer - Sony Ericsson - allowed firmware updates to its smartphones. The others considered them too risky. If the user knocks out a cable, or the device (or PC) runs out of battery, the device is bricked. Nokia began to introduce them (via a PC) in mid-2006. It was for hardcore users only.
OTA, or over-the-air updates followed in late 2007. In each case the update required the user to backup and restore; it was only in 2009 that Nokia introduced "user data preservation" across most of its devices.
In 2007 Apple introduced the iPhone, which was umbilically tied to iTunes software - and suddenly millions of users were doing firmware updates without even realising it. Even Apple has avoided OTA firmware updates - or for that matter, wireless sync. Something might go wrong.
If the WP team didn't know this, they do now. This is something that's very hard to do right. There are OEM variants, and each has diverse variants for multiple operators in multiple territories. Keeping track of all this is a job, and this is where it helps to have a large, experienced and highly structured set of engineering and administrative QC procedures. It helps to have something resembling - dare I say it - a bureaucracy. And this is what Nokia has, and is actually quite good at.
This is also what Elop has set out to destroy.
He evidently has a low regard for Nokia's ability to get things done quickly, and so has handed Nokia's WP development to small teams, to work closely with Microsoft and in isolation from the juggernaut of the bureaucracy he inherited. In essence, he's created a skunkworks within Nokia, while the old company is destroyed around it.
Jobs did something similar when he returned to Apple. Elop's conundrum is that he still needs a large, complex administrative apparatus to produce modern phones.
So what can he do? When Steve Jobs carried out his reverse-takeover of Apple, he brought with him staff experienced in creating high quality hardware, and mature, proven software, along with the people who had written it. They had experience of working together. That "skunkworks" was the NeXT.
Elop's job is so much harder. Little has prepared him for this, and even less has been written about this aspect of the strategy since he announced it on Black Friday.
There are very few precedents for what Nokia must do, and I'm stumped if I know. It's why I'm not a management consultant. I don't even know what a change management paradigm is (remember), or care particularly much that I don't know.
But if you multiply the damage caused by this week's patch, by the volumes of Windows Phone that Nokia wants to sell, you can see the problem. It's going to have to be fixed. ®