When one looks at the prime assets of the Nokia of five years ago, it’s alarming to see how many have been discarded. At the turn of the decade, the Finnish giant boasted a formidable reputation for reliability, security and ease of use. Now it’s thrown all three out of the window, with security being the last to go.
The diminishing reliability of these devices isn’t unique to Nokia, and it may be a consequence of having so many products, in so many markets, all at once. But engineers deep in Nokia we’ve spoken with describe how they grew weary at being conditioned only to fix a proportion of bugs. It offends an engineer’s pride to release a flawed product, but this became a way of life. There was simply too much to do.
As for usability, the company which pioneered an interface that helped popularize the digital mobile phone – NaviKey™ – now falls far behind much of the competition. With feature phones, Nokia’s interface has failed to evolve with the tactile and graceful interface of Sony Ericsson, for example.
At the high end, the story is far worse. The S60 UI initially provided Nokia with a clever bridge to the future, but it looks pedantic and cumbersome besides Motorola’s MotoRizr 8, let alone Apple’s iPhone. Nokia answers the perennial S60 user’s question, “Why so many clicks?” by adding extra hardware buttons, such as the slow and inflexible “Multimedia” key. S60 is incredibly poorly written in parts, but Samsung has demonstrated that it doesn’t have to be sluggish, by using its own chip to speed up its first European S60 phone. Yet Nokia has ensured most of its smartphone users have a substandard experience, by starving the devices of sufficient memory or fast enough processors.
It doesn’t augur well that the company’s skill at exploiting the emerging markets owes little to its recent R&D work: it’s succeeded with low cost models in China by dusting off older, more reliable, and easier-to-use technologies. In other words, it’s living off past glories, rather than looking to the future.
In fact, Nokia now appears to quite relish the complexity of its devices. Quite bizarrely, a company which had no need for an inferiority complex appears to have acquired one.
For some years now, phones have really been computers in disguise, but Nokia has always stressed their utility as appliances. Today it proudly boasts: “This is what computers have become”, and insists its sales staff call the phones “Multimedia Computers”.
But computers are everything mobiles are not and shouldn’t be: cumbersome to carry with you, complicated and unreliable. It’s like Mercedes branding themselves as “The Lada you always wanted.”
Perhaps by bringing bloated Widgets to mobiles, Nokia now feels validated, that it has a “real computer”. But one must careful what one wishes for.
Yesterday’s network, tomorrow
Today’s announcement will do little to raise the morale of the bedrock third-party software developers who Nokia needs the most: the C++ and Java developers required for infrastructure, middleware and mission-critical applications.
Even the most loyal Nokia developers whisper that Microsoft makes a less predatory platform host than the 800lb Elk. How can this be so? Well, because Nokia receives API requests from the community, it has a good inkling of what everyone is working on. The company can deprecate an API on a whim, if it wishes to enter that business sector. And if that API is crucial to your business, then you need to be looking for a new job. Turf wars between Nokia’s Enterprise division and its Multimedia division leave these developers in a Kafka-esque situation: duplicating requests for the same feature if it’s going to be deployed on an E series phone or an N series phone. Developers need to plough through that bureaucracy not once, but twice.
Now imagine how today’s news will be received. It becomes apparent that Nokia hope to attract new developers by making its phones more attractive to wiki-fiddlers and script kiddies. Over to Ovum’s Cripps eulogising web widgets:
“Web developers are several orders of magnitude more common [our emphasis] than the C or C++ programmers targeted by S60’s native environment and also considerably more numerous [ditto] than Java ME programmers. Attracting these developers will be a key factor in the continued healthy growth of the mobile applications ecosystem.”
Actually, the health of the mobile applications ‘ecosystem’ is entirely dependent on how the carriers choose to open up their networks. (For example: it’s a given that tomorrow’s mobile networks are IP-based, but it’s far from certain that the network operators will produce a subset of APIs.)
The exact opposite is true.
Now this is but a selective snapshot of Nokia’s business strategy. We could have been more positive, and praised the company’s singular, and admirable determination to bring VoIP to its business handsets, against the wishes of its biggest customers. Then again, we could have mentioned the new CEO’s nutty prediction that mobile TV will go mainstream this year – ignoring 25 years of mobile TV flops.
It’s just that Widgets sum up so much of what Nokia today is failing to get right. The company is floundering if it thinks Web 2.0 is its salvation.
The irony is that the open internet is moving to an architecture that much more closely resembles the vertical network that Nokia wants to distance itself from. Increasingly, the packet switched network is acquiring the characteristics of the circuit switched networks: with intelligence built into the network itself. The internet needs this to grow, and handle more sophisticated applications.
These days, even the primary author of the fundamental text defining the old, open internet ( “The End to End Principle in Network Design”) David Clark, says we need to rip up the infrastructure, and start again
“We are at an inflection point, a revolution point – we might just be at the point where the utility of the internet stalls – and perhaps turns downward,” he warns.
Which way will Nokia be facing? Or will it be fidgeting with those Widgets?