Feb. 13th, 2011

There's been a lot of commentary about the announcement this week that Nokia is dropping Symbian from their high-end devices and putting MeeGo into a sort of "experimental lab" status. Most of it has been pretty scathing, with those who'll even admit that something had to be done rather loudly (and often incoherently) talking up Android as having been the obvious choice.

I'm sure it'll be a great comfort to the Nokia CEO that some random blogger on the Internet thinks it isn't automatically the biggest disaster ever, but that's broadly my take on it.

Symbian needed a lot of work. Nokia put quite a lot of time and money into trying to get it up to par with the competition and still hasn't got there after several years. MeeGo is apparently not ready yet. Having shown that the company simply isn't capable of getting the software right, they had to do something.

The "buy Palm" ship sailed a year ago and they weren't on it. No point crying over that one.

So the options left were:

  1. Give up on high-end smartphones;

  2. Android with a really great overlay;

  3. Windows Phone 7.

So let's take a look at each, eh?

Giving up on the high-end wouldn't be completely crazy, but it'd be a huge admission of defeat. Nokia makes most of its money from the low-end feature phones where it pretty thoroughly dominates. They're good at building robust, reliable, cheap handsets. But there's an argument to be made that having the prestigious high-end stuff can help maintain the position at the low-end, a sort of "halo effect".

If they'd gone Android -- and apparently there were talks with Google a while back which didn't go anywhere -- then they'd have needed to differentiate, likely in the usual Android way by writing their own custom overlay and apps. If they can't do this in-house for Symbian what makes anyone think they could do it for Android?

And once you do this with Android you've got a support nightmare. Either you have to kill support for old models very quickly, or you're stuck having to port all your custom code, including QA and UAT, every time Google drops an update.

Google are not exactly forthcoming about roadmaps and typically pick a new partner for each release. If you're not the lucky company this time around you automatically start behind the curve, both for getting updates out for your existing models and releasing new ones.

It's a mess, in other words.

Windows Phone has the potential (and I have to stress that right now that's only potential) to be a happy medium between the control-freak single-vendor iOS approach where there's effectively one device available and if you don't like it then you can sod off, and the Android approach where there are many models and many varying interface designs, with the attendant update and fragmentation issues.

There's a single OS vendor and only one interface available. That OS vendor has committed to keeping control over updates, just like Apple, but there's room for differentiation on hardware. Within limits, anyway. You have to meet a minimum spec, and that minimum is right now pretty high-end.

There are a number of manufacturers producing WP7 devices, so you'd think it's a bad deal for Nokia, but the platform is new enough abd Nokia's hardware good enough that they might be able to stand out from the Android crowd if this "special relationship" talk manifests something real.

Doing nothing wasn't an option. None of the choices available were ideal. In an ideal world they'd have been able to get their act together with Symbian or MeeGo and there'd consequently be more competition in the high-end smartphone OS field. But Nokia has been dysfunctional for years, they couldn't do it, and in my view this was the least-bad option open to them.

Whether the end result will be obscurity in five years or the resurgence that the execs are clearly hoping for, that's unclear. And anyone who tells you they know is either lying or an idiot.


Abort, Rephrase, Ignore?

October 2011

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