Most people in tech will by now have heard the big news out of Europe over the weekend that Nokia will base its future smartphones on the Windows Phone 7 (WP7) platform. It’s a surprising move, but it will by no means signal an end to Nokia’s flagging fortunes.
Why could cause such a dramatic turn around in strategy by a market leader? Let’s start by considering the state of play.
As I’ve written about in the past, one of the biggest strategic blunders Nokia ever made was with its mobile Internet device.
About six years ago Nokia released a device that had a touch screen, Linux-based OS, developer community and could be used for multimedia consumption and Web surfing in addition to regular e-mail.
Sound good? You bet it was good. For its time the N770 was the type of product you would expect from Nokia. Nokia made the mistake not including GSM phone or data connectivity from the start, but if we ignore that the stage was set for a kick-ass smartphone product line.
[Note: such a device could have run Symbian. I’m not saying it had to run Linux or anything else, what I’m saying is that platform was at the forefront of what we now take for granted in a smartphone.]
Only after the arrival of the iPhone and Android did Nokia finally produce a rich-media smartphone in the N900 and, unbelievably, it failed to market it through its carrier channels the way its competitors have with their smartphone products.
It’s worth mentioning here that after nearly a year of using Nokia’s N900 I think it’s a shame the Maemo OS wasn’t expanded to more devices, including a touch screen only handset.
The basics are all there with Maemo. It does multitasking, supports widgets, has an app store, and so on.
Nokia just should be where Motorola is today with its smartphone strategy, it’s a simple as that
The only thing really missing is integration with online services and social media. If Nokia developed easy-to-use, yet powerful clients for Facebook and Twitter then there’s no reason why the Maemo platform couldn’t compete with iOS and Android.
Instead Nokia left the most crucial apps to the community, which is nowhere near as big as iPhone and Android. The result? Maemo was left starved of apps. And now it looks as though it won’t even be given a chance to compete in the (increasingly) mass-market smartphone space.
The Android bullet
Since Android was released I’ve often wondered why Nokia hasn’t at least tested the water with one or two Android-based devices.
For some reason it viewed Android as a competing platform, but in reality it’s no more a competing platform than Windows Phone 7 – which Nokia’s competitors already have products in the market based on the OS today.
The partial adoption of Android would have at least given Nokia more of a chance to adopt it en masse if it started shaking up the market and its incumbent Symbian.
Philosophically, the success of Android is no different to what Nokia tried to do with Symbian. Nokia released Symbian under and open source licence making it available to all handset manufacturers.
By then all the phone makers had decided on Android and the incumbents were being challenged by smaller players like HTC.
As for Nokia adopting Android, you don’t have to look far to see what might have been. The best example of an incumbent mobile manufacturer modernising its platform with Android is Motorola.
A couple of years ago Motorola was struggling for relevancy itself. I had a successful flip phone in the Razr, but as technology advanced it found itself short in the rich-media smartphone space.
Motorola “bit the Android bullet”, so to speak, and realigned its smartphone strategy around the Google OS.
While it was late to the party, Motorola has now re-engineered its product lines around Android and is releasing some nice smartphones and tablets.
Motorola can focus more on handsets and application software and care less about the underlying platform. Even if Motorola chooses another platform in the future, it is now competing in today’s smartphone market thanks to Android.
In start contrast the “now” for Nokia, by its own admission, is nowhere to be seen. Its high-end Symbian handsets are struggling to compete with the iPhone-Android juggernaut and its Linux-based platform – Maemo and now MeeGo – is only available on one device.
Nokia just should be where Motorola is today with its smartphone strategy, it’s a simple as that.
Time and time again I hear people say “Nokia make great hardware, but they need better software” and “Nokia should make an Android handset” and so on.
Let’s hope for Nokia’s sake WP7 can provide that “better software”.
Why Windows Phone 7?
That’s the question the entire mobile hardware and open source software industries are left to ponder.
If Nokia’s Symbian install base is being eroded by iPhone and Android, why choose the fledgling Windows Phone 7? It’s not like Nokia is adopting a well-established platform with 100 million users.
Nokia has bet the growing smartphone business on an infant platform which it has no control over.
Yes, WP7, like Android, can be customised, but unlike Android it’s not available as an open source platform that can be adopted and customised wholesale to suit Nokia’s needs.
So strategically there’s little difference for Nokia between WP7 and Android.
Conspiracy theories anyone? Some people say the decision was made because CEO Shephen Elop is a former Microsoft VP.
Without ruling that out completely, Elop and the other top brass at Nokia still have to do what’s best for the company.
Saying the decision was biased or suggesting Nokia will become “the mobile division of Microsoft” won’t mean anything if its handsets can’t hold their own.
Who got the better end of the deal? Perhaps it’s more meaningful to ask: who always gets the better end of the deal?
Of course this is a big win for Microsoft. It’s managed to convince the world’s largest handset maker to adopt its new platform against the tide of Android.
For Microsoft it’s an instant boost in the number of units it ships without the pain of having to slug it out with Android among the other handset makers.
Without this deal WP7 would have struggled to get any significant foot-hold in the smartphone market.
Don’t get me wrong, WP7 can certainly compete on merit, but with Android running red hot at the moment on non-Apple devices it would be an uphill battle indeed.
We can look at Nokia’s strategy at all angles speculate as much as we like, but unfortunately this deal raises more questions than it answers.
When will we see the first Nokia WP7 device? Will its specs be relevant? What’s the price point? Will the WP7 app store ever rival the big two? And so on.
It won’t be until Nokia actually starts shipping smartphones with WP7 when we will see how relevant it can remain amid this rapidly changing market.
Follow Rodney Gedda on Twitter: @rodneygedda
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