Nokia was once the king of the phones that everyone wanted. For many it was because they made a solid handset that did what it needed to do: make calls and send text messages. Their demise came at their inability to adapt to the rapid pace of innovation that was spurred on by Apple and Google, their offerings in the smartphone space coming too late, their customers leaving for greener pastures. The result was that their handset manufacturing capability was offloaded to Microsoft but a small part of Nokia remained independent, one that held all the patents and their research and development arm. It seems that that part of Nokia is looking to take it in crazy new directions with their first product being the Ozo, a 360 degree virtual reality video camera.
Whilst Nokia isn’t flooding the newswaves with details just yet we do know that the Ozo is a small spherical device that incorporates 8 cameras and microphones that are able to capture video and sound from any angle. It’s most certainly not the first camera of its kind with numerous competitors already having products available in this space but it is most certainly one of the better looking offerings out there. As for how it’d fare against its competition that’s something we’ll have to wait to see as the first peek at the Ozo video is slated to come out just over a week from now.
At the same time Nokia has taken to the Tongal platform, a website that allows brands like Nokia to coax filmmakers into doing stuff for them, to garner proposals for videos that will demonstrate the “awesomeness” of the Ozo platform. To entice people to participate there’s a total of $42,000 and free Ozo cameras up for grabs for two lucky filmmakers, something which is sure to attract a few to the platform. Whether that’s enough to make them the platform of choice for VR filmmakers though is another question, one I’m not entirely sure that Nokia will like the answer to.
You see whilst VR video has taken off of late due to YouTube’s support of the technology it’s really just a curiosity at this point. The current technology strictly prohibits it from making its way into cinemas, due to the fact that you’d need to strap an Oculus Rift or equivalent to your head to experience it. Thus it’s currently limited in appeal to tech demos, 3D renderings and a smattering of indie things. Thus the market for such a device seems pretty small, especially when you consider there’s already a few players selling their products in this space. So whilst Nokia’s latest device may be a refreshing change for the once king of phones I’m not sure it’ll become much more than a hobby for the company.
Maybe that’s all Nokia is looking for here, throwing a wild idea out to the public to see what they’d make of it. Nokia wasn’t exactly known for its innovation once the smartphone revolution began but perhaps they’re looking to change that perception with the Ozo. I’m not entirely convinced it will work out for them, anyone can throw together a slick website with great press shots, but the reaction from the wider press seems to indicate that they’re excited about the potential this might bring.
It’s sometimes hard to remember that smartphones are still a recent phenomenon with the first devices to be categorised as such being less than a decade old. Sure there were phones before that which you could say were smartphones but back then they were more an amalgam of a PDA and a phone more than a seamless blend between the two. Back then the landscape of handset providers was wildly different, one that was dominated by a single player: Nokia. Their failure to capitalize on the smartphone revolution is a testament to incumbents failing to react to innovative upstarts and their sale to Microsoft their admittance of their fault. You can then imagine my surprise when the now much smaller company is eyeing off a return to the smartphone market as pretty much everyone would agree the horse has long since bolted for Nokia.
The strategy is apparently being born out of the Nokia Technologies arm, the smallest branch out of the three that remained after the deal with Microsoft (the other two being its network devices and Here location division). This is the branch that holds Nokia’s 10,000 or so patents and so you’d think that they’d likely just be resting on their laurels and collecting patent fees for time immaterial. However this section has been somewhat busy at work having developed and licensed two products since the Microsoft deal. The first of which is z Launcher an Android launcher and the N1 a tablet which they’ve licensed out to another manufacturer whom they’ve also lent the Nokia brand name too. The expectation is that future Nokia devices will likely follow the latter’s model with Nokia doing most of the backend work but then offloading it to someone else to manufacture and ship.
There’s no doubt that Nokia had something of a cult following among Windows Phone users as they provided some of the best handsets for that platform. Their other smartphones however had no such following as their pursuit of their own mobile ecosystem made it extremely unappealing to developers who were already split between two major platforms. Had Nokia retained control of the Lumia brand I could see them having an inbuilt user base for a future smartphone, especially if came in an Android flavour, however that brand (and everything that backed it) went to Microsoft and so did all the loyalty that went with it. Nokia is essentially starting from scratch here and, unfortunately, that doesn’t bode well for the once king of the phone industry.
Coming in at that level you’re essentially competing with every other similarly specced handset out there and, to be honest, it’s a market that eats up competitors like that without too much hassle. The outsourcing of the actual manufacturing and distribution means that they don’t shoulder a lot of the risk that they used to with such designs however it also means they have little control over the final product that actually reaches consumers. That being said the N1 does look like a solid device but that doesn’t necessarily mean that future devices will share the same level of quality.
Nokia is going to have to do something to stand out from the pack and, frankly, without their brand loyalty behind them I’m struggling to see what they could do to claw back some of the market share they once had. There are innumerable companies now that have solid handset choices for nearly all sectors of the market and the Nokia brand name just doesn’t carry the weight it once did. If they’re seriously planning a return to the smartphone market they’re going to have to do much more than just make another handset, something which I’m not entirely sure the now slimmed down Nokia is capable of doing.
Ever since Microsoft and Nokia announced their partnership with (and subsequent acquisition by) Microsoft I had wondered when we’d start seeing a bevy of feature phones that were running the Windows Phone operating system behind the scenes. Sure there’s a lot of cheaper Lumias on the market, like the Lumia 520 can be had for $149 outright, but there isn’t anything in the low end where Nokia has been the undisputed king for decades. That section of the market is now dominated by Nokia’s Asha line of handsets, a curious new operating system that came into being shortly after Nokia canned all development on Symbian and their other alternative mobile platforms. However there’s long been rumours circling that Nokia was developing a low end Android handset to take over this area of the market, predominately due to the rise of cheap Android handsets that were beginning to trickle in.
The latest leaks from engineers within Nokia appear to confirm these rumours with the above pictures showcasing a prototype handset developed under the Normandy code name. Details are scant as to what the phone actually consists of but the notification bar in does look distinctly Android with the rest of the UI not bearing any resemblance to anything else on the market currently. This fits in with the rumours that Nokia was looking to fork Android and make its own version of it, much like Amazon did for the Kindle Fire, which would also mean that they’d likely be looking to create their own app store as well. This would be where Microsoft could have its in, pushing Android versions of its Windows Phone applications through its own distribution channel without having to seek Google’s approval.
Such a plan almost wholly relies on the fact that Nokia is the trusted name in the low end space, managing to command a sizable chunk of the market even in the face of numerous rivals. Even though Windows Phone has been gaining ground recently in developed markets it’s still been unable to gain much traction in emerging markets. Using Android as a trojan horse to get uses onto their app ecosystem could potentially work however it’s far more likely that those users will simply remain on the new Android platform. Still there would be a non-zero number who would eventually look towards moving upwards in terms of functionality and when it comes to Nokia there’s only one platform to choose from.
Of course this all hinges on the idea that Microsoft is actively interested in pursuing this idea and it’s not simply part of the ongoing skunk works of Nokia employees. That being said Microsoft already makes a large chunk of change from every Android phone sold thanks to its licensing arrangements with numerous vendors so they would have a slight edge in creating a low end Android handset. Whether they eventually use that to try and leverage users onto the Windows Phone platform though will be something that we’ll have to wait to see as I can imagine it’ll be a long time before an actual device sees the light of day.
If you’re old enough to remember a time when mobile phones weren’t common place you also likely remember the time when Nokia was the brand to have, much like Apple is today. I myself owned quite a few of them with my very first phone ever being the (then) ridiculously small Nokia 8210. I soon gravitated towards other, more shiny devices as my disposable income allowed but I did find myself in possession of an N95 because, at the time, it was probably one of the best handsets around for techno-enthusiasts like myself. However it’s hard to deny that they’ve struggled to compete in today’s smartphone market and, unfortunately, their previous domination in the feature phone market has also slipped away from them.
Their saving grace was meant to come from partnering with Microsoft and indeed I attested to as much at the time. Casting my mind back to when I wrote that post I was actually of the mind that Nokia was going to be the driving force for Microsoft however in retrospect it seems the partnership was done in the hopes that both of their flagging attempts in the smartphone market could be combined into one, potentially viable, product. Whilst I’ve praised the design and quality of Windows Phone based Nokias in the past it’s clear that the amalgamation of 2 small players hasn’t resulted in a viable strategy to accumulate a decent amount of market share.
You can then imagine my surprise when Microsoft up and bought Nokia’s Devices and Services business as it doesn’t appear to be a great move for them.
So Nokia as a company isn’t going anywhere as they still retain control of a couple key businesses (Solutions and Networks, HERE/Navteq and Advanced Technologies which I’ll talk about in a bit) however they’re not going to be making phones anymore as that entire capability has been transferred to Microsoft. That’s got a decent amount of value in itself, mostly in the manufacturing and supply chains, and Microsoft’s numbers will swell by 32,000 when the deal is finished. However whether that’s going to result in any large benefits for Microsoft is debateable as they arguably got most of this in their 2011 strategic partnership just that they can now do all the same without the Nokia branding on the final product.
If this type of deal is sounding familiar then you’re probably remembering the nearly identical acquisition that Google made in Motorola back in 2011. Google’s reasons and subsequent use of the company were quite different however and, strangely enough, they have yet to use them to make one of Nexus phones. Probably the biggest difference, and this is key to why this deal is great for Nokia and terrible for Microsoft, is the fact that Google got all of Motorola’s patents, Microsoft hasn’t got squat.
As part of the merger a new section is being created in Nokia called Advanced Technologies which, as far as I can tell, is going to be the repository for all of Nokia’s technology patents. Microsoft has been granted a 10 year license to all of these, and when that’s expired they’ll get a perpetual one, however Nokia gets to keep ownership of all of them and the license they gave Microsoft is non-exclusive. So since Nokia is really no longer a phone company they’re now free to start litigating against anyone they choose without much fear of counter-suits harming any of their products. Indeed they’ve stated that the patent suits will likely continue post acquisition signalling that Nokia is likely going to look a lot more like a patent troll than a technology company in the near future.
Meanwhile Microsoft has been left with a flagging handset business, one that’s failed to reach the kind of growth that would be required to make it sustainable long term. Now there’s something to be said about Microsoft being able to release Lumia branded handsets (they get the branding in this deal) but honestly their other forays into the consumer electronics space haven’t gone so well so I’m not sure what they’re going to accomplish here. They’ve already got the capability and distribution channels to get products out there (go into any PC store and you’ll find Microsoft branded peripherals there, guaranteed) so whilst it might be nice to get Nokia’s version of that all built and ready I’m sure they could have built one themselves for a similar amount of cash. Of course the Lumia tablet might be able to change consumer’s minds on that one but most of the user complaints around Windows RT weren’t about the hardware (as evidenced in my review).
In all honesty I have no idea why Microsoft would think this would be a good move, let alone a move that would let them do anything more than they’re currently doing. If they had acquired Nokia’s vast portfolio of patents in the process I’d be singing a different tune as Microsoft has shown how good they are in wringing license fees out of people (so much so that the revenue they get from Android licensing exceeds that of their Windows Phone division) . However that hasn’t happened and instead we’ve got Nokia lining up to become a patent troll of epic proportions and Microsoft left $7 billion patent licensing deal that comes with its own failing handset business. I’m not alone in this sentiment either as Microsoft’s shares dropped 5% on this announcement which isn’t great news for this deal.
I really want to know where they’re going with this because I can’t for the life of me figure it out.
I remember when I first saw Windows Phone 7 introduced all those years ago now how it just looked like Microsoft playing the me-too game with one of its biggest competitors. This was also a time when RIM, you know those guys who make the BlackBerrys that everyone used to rave about, where the kings of the smart phone world and Android was still considered that upstart that would get no where. Back then I said I’d end up getting one of these handsets eventually, mostly for application development purposes, but also so I could share the experience with you, my readers. I never really made good on that promise but thanks to LifeHacker I’ve had the privilege to have a Nokia Lumia 900 as my sole communications device for the past couple weeks and I thought it was high time I told you what I think of it.
Before I get into the meat of the underlying operating system I want to take a little time to comment on the phone itself. Nokia, renowned for their low end handsets that are everywhere, sheds those preconceptions easily with the Lumia 900. Whilst I know its no indication of the underlying quality the 900 has a really nice heft to it, feeling quite solid in the hands. The specs are actually quite incredible with it sporting a 1.4GHz Qualcomm Scorpion processor, 512MB RAM and 16GB of internal storage. Couple that with an 8MP camera with Carl Zeiss optics capable of capturing 720p video you’ve got a solid base of hardware that’s easily comparable to all other handsets from its generation. The battery life is also pretty incredible, easily lasting a couple days with moderate usage. Indeed if Nokia were to release a similar phone to the Android market there’s no doubt in my mind that it’d be right up there with the likes of Samsung and HTC.
My first impressions were quite good for Windows Phone 7 with some teething issues that I’ll dive into. On the surface Windows Phone 7 is visually pleasing with the large icons, live tiles and a very smooth scrolling experience that all just works. Just like you do with Android or iOS you sign into your phone using your Windows Live ID, which can be any email address you want, which then hooks into the underlying services that power your Windows Phone 7 handset. For the most part this is synching with things like Live Contacts, SkyDrive for your cloud storage and any other Microsoft service. For the most part these work well however I had a stumbling block at the start which did sour me initially on the platform.
So ever since I moved from my Windows Mobile device to my first iPhone all those years ago I’ve had my contacts stored in Google Contacts as that was the easiest way to ensure they’d follow me from platform to platform. Thankfully Windows Phone 7 allows you to add accounts across a wide range of services, Google being one of them. So I entered my details and hit sync…nothing happened. Indeed even when I tried to sync to my LiveID (which has nothing in it) I got a similar error saying “Attention required” and upon investigation it said that my username/password combination wasn’t correct. No matter what I did to get this to work it would always come up with this same error for both services. To rectify this I had to reset my phone to factory defaults, sign in again with my LiveID and then attempt to sync again. For Google Contacts I had to create an application specific password to use it (I have 2 factor auth turned on for my Google account) but I wasn’t prompted for this from Windows Phone 7 like I have been for other services. Realistically I’d expect a little better from a platform that’s been around for this long and this was why I was initially unhappy with Windows Phone 7.
However all the other in built apps like email, messaging and maps work absolutely flawlessly. It didn’t take me long to get everything in sync with all my emails coming down as soon as the server received them and things like MMS, which usually require some fiddling to get them to work properly, just worked straight away from the APN settings that came down from Telstra. The problems I experienced getting my contacts onto Windows Phone 7 were really the only major issue I had with the platform itself and it speaks volumes that the rest of the experience was so trouble free by comparison.
Of course the platform itself is only part of the equation as it’s the third party applications that can make or break it. Thankfully I’m please to say that for all the major applications like Twitter, Facebook and Shazam there are native applications and the function pretty much identically to their counterparts on the other major platforms. There are of course some differences in the applications that can be rather irritating (Twitter for instance doesn’t preload tweets like it does on Android) but they are more than usable. I wouldn’t say I prefer the Windows Phone 7 experience over Android or iOS as I was very much used to the former due to it being my platform of choice for the past year and a bit but I don’t find myself wanting for any specific feature. It’s probably more due to the fact that Windows Phone 7 has its own UI styling that’s pretty consistent across all the applications and for some instances that fits well but for others it just doesn’t really work at all.
Where Windows Phone 7 starts to fall down is in the niche application area, I.E. those applications on other platforms that you have for one specific need or another. My best example of this would be SoundCloud, a music sharing application, which has a great application on both Android and iOS. For Windows Phone 7 there’s no official application and all the third party solutions are really quite bad, to the point of being unusable. Of the 3 I tried no one supported logging in with Facebook and since I have no idea what my SoundCloud password is (I never set one, because of the Facebook integration) I simply could not try them. The SoundCloud mobile application is actually quite good but it doesn’t function the way you’d expect it and in order to get similar functionality you have to do things that aren’t particularly intuitive. Reddit is another example as whilst there’s an usable application (Alien News) it’s just not as good as Reddit is Fun on Android.
The state of the niche applications might not be a big deal to the majority of people who only need a few major applications (which are well supported on Windows Phone 7) but for power users like myself it feels like you’re artificially limiting yourself to being a second class smart phone user. Now this is no fault of the platform, it’s simply a function of its popularity among the wider public, and the only thing that will solve it is more users and time. Whether that will happen is hard to say as whilst Windows Phone 7 market share has been growing it’s still hard to call it anything more than an also-ran in comparison to Android and iOS.
In an objective comparison between all the platforms, forgetting the applications as they’re not strictly reflective of the platform itself, I can say that Windows Phone 7 is most definitely comparable to Android and iOS. The interface is slick and smooth, the built in applications are very usable and there are no real show stopping bugs that prevent you from doing anything that you could do on other platforms. Whilst I’m not sure if this will become my default platform of choice for the future (considering my Lumia won’t get Windows Phone 8) I definitely can’t fault anyone for choosing it over any of the other ones available. Indeed for certain people, especially those who are heavily invested in the Microsoft platform, I’d recommend it over anything else as its tight integration with Microsoft would make it much more worthwhile.
So overall I was very impressed with Windows Phone 7 as I was truly expecting the majority of applications to be no where near as good as their iOS/Android counterparts but they were. The most telling thing was that I never found myself wanting to do something and then finding out I wouldn’t be able to do it. Sure the experience wasn’t ideal in some cases but the capability was there and in many cases that’s all that matters. It will be interesting to see how this compares to the upcoming Windows Phone 8 and whilst I won’t promise that I’ll rush out to get one for the review (I’ve made that mistake before) I won’t say to no if Microsoft gives me a loaner for a couple weeks.
Which is actually a real possibility considering I’ll be blogging for them 😀
Whilst the only current smartphone platform I’ve had any decent experience with is Apple’s iPhone I’m still not completely tied to it. Sure the platform is great and I’ll always be keeping an iOS device around for as long as I keep developing for the platform but my next handset purchase is more than likely not going to be another Apple device. The case is strong for a Windows Phone 7 handset thanks to its great tool set and general esoteric-ness (I don’t yet know anyone who’s bought one) but that same air of mystery is a double edged sword. Sure most of my general applications will be available on it, like Twitter and Facebook, but past that there’s not a whole lot of interest in the platform.
It’s not surprising really considering that slice of the mobile market pie that Microsoft commands is only a mere 5.5% according to the IDC, which includes all handsets that come under the Windows umbrella. The nearest rival to them is RIM (creator of the Blackberry handset series) who nearly triple their share at a whopping 14.9% and even they don’t seem to command a 3rd party developer army comparable to that of Android or Google. Still with them sealing the deal on a partnership with Nokia recently the IDC has reported that Microsoft’s WP7 platform will begin to surge ahead, overtaking iOS and being second only to Android.
The intial reaction to this was of course, utter disbelief:
In the close to six months that WP7 has been available, it has failed to set sales on fire. In fact, Microsoft hasn’t provided any metrics on how many WP7 handsets have been sold. Also, the 5.5% market share that Microsoft has now represents both WP7 and the old Windows Mobile 5.x and 6.x systems, which are still being sold on enterprise handhelds.
Further, Microsoft has stumbled badly with the first two system updates for its smartphone platform. First by delaying it for nearly two months, and second by bungling the actual delivery of the updates. Things are not going so smoothly for Microsoft. Heck, WP7 champion Joe Belfiore actually wrote a public apology to its WP7 customers about the whole update debacle.
Zeman makes some good points about the WP7 ecosystem and the troubles Microsoft has faced in dragging their Windows Mobile platform into the modern age. The sales figures aren’t that impressive when you compare them to iOS and Android, heck they’re not even that impressive compared to single handsets on either platform. Still this ignores the fact that WP7 is still a nascent platform and it will be a while before it reaches the maturity level that everyone’s expecting of it. If we’re fair and compare the initial WP7 sales to the initial release of Android you’ll actually find them quite comparable with the G1 selling some 600,000 handsets in the first couple months and WP7 cracking 1.5 million in its first 6 weeks. It took quite a while for Android and even the iPhone to hit the fever pitch that they have today so the current market share of WP7 devices shouldn’t really come as a surprise.
I can’t provide an excuse for their botched update schedule however. Apple seems to be the only major competitor that’s nailed this completely with Android and WP7 both suffering from the same carrier induced delays and fragmentation problems. It’s actually one of the reasons why I haven’t already lashed out for a WP7 handset since the main carrier of them here in Australia, Telstra, is still testing the pre-update update and has no schedule for the release of the coveted Nodo update. Since there doesn’t seem to be any way to route around the carrier and install the patch manually (although I’ll admit I haven’t done a ton of research on this) it means I’m wholly dependent on someone other than Microsoft to get my handset updated. With Telstra’s track record that doesn’t exactly inspire much confidence in the platform.
Both Android and iOS faced similar problems in their infancy and I’m sure WP7 will be able to overcome them in the future. Whether it will become the second most popular platform though remains to be seen as whilst the Nokia relationship means they have a strong possibility of gaining some serious traction it’s not a sure bet that every current Symbian customer will convert over to WP7. With Microsoft being particularly coy about their sales figures its hard to get a good reading of how their new mobile platform is trending but it will definitely be interesting to see how their market share changes as Nokia begins releasing their WP7 handsets.
I’ve had quite a few phones in my time but only 2 of them have ever been Nokias. The first was the tiny 8210 I bought purely because everyone else was getting a phone so of course I needed one as well. The second was an ill-fated N95 which, despite being an absolutely gorgeous media phone, failed to work on my network of choice thanks to it being a regional model that the seller neglected to inform me about. Still I always had a bit of a soft spot for Nokia devices because they got the job done and they were familiar to anyone who had used them before, saving many phone calls when my parents upgraded their handsets. I’ve even wondered loudly why developers ignore Nokia’s flagship mobile platform despite it’s absolutely ridiculous install base that dwarfs all of its competitors, acknowledging that it’s mostly due to their lack of innovation on the platform.
Then on the weekend a good friend of mine tells me that Nokia had teamed up with Microsoft to replace Symbian with Windows Phone 7. I had heard about Nokia’s CEO releasing a memo signalling drastic changes ahead for the company but I really didn’t expect that to result in something this drastic:
Nokia CEO Stephen Elop announced a long-rumored partnership with Microsoft this morning that would make Windows Phone 7 Nokia’s primary mobile platform.
The announcement means the end is near for Nokia’s aging Symbian platform, which many (myself included) have criticized as being too archaic to compete with modern platforms like the iPhone OS or Android. And Nokia’s homegrown next-generation OS, MeeGo, will no longer be the mythical savior for the Finnish company, as it’s now being positioned more as an experiment.
We’ve argued for some time that a move to Windows Phone 7 would make the most sense for Nokia, and after Elop’s dramatic “burning platform” memo last weekend, it was all but certain that the company would link up with Microsoft.
It’s a bold move for both Nokia and Microsoft as separated they’re not much of a threat to the two other giants in the mobile industry. However upon combining Nokia is ensuring that Windows Phone 7 reaches many more people than it can currently, delivering handsets at price ranges that other manufacturers just won’t touch. This will have a positive feedback effect of making the platform more attractive to developers which in turn drives more users to come to the platform when their applications of choice are ported or emulated. Even their concept phones are looking pretty schmick:
The partnership runs much deeper than just another vendor hopping onto the WP7 bandwagon however. Nokia has had a lot more experience than Microsoft in the mobile space and going by what is said in an open letter that the CEOs of both companies wrote together it looks like Microsoft is hoping to use that experience to further refine the WP7 line. There’s also a deep integration in terms of Microsoft services (Bing for search and adCenter for ads) and interestingly enough Bing Maps won’t be powering Nokia’s WP7 devices, it will still be OVI Maps. I’m interested to see where this integration heads because Bing Maps is actually a pretty good product and I was never a fan of the maps on Nokia devices (mostly because of the subscription fee required). They’ll also be porting all their content streams and application store across to the Microsoft Marketplace which is expected considering the level of integration they’re going for.
Of course the question has been raised as to why they didn’t go for one of the alternatives, namely their MeeGo platform or Google Android. MeeGo, for all its open source goodness, hasn’t really experienced the same amount of traction that Android has and has firmly been in the realms of “curious experiment” for the past year, even if Nokia is only admitting to it today. Android on the other hand would’ve made a lot of sense, however it appears that Nokia wanted to be an influencer of their new platform of choice rather than just another manufacturer. They’d never get this level of integration from Google unless they put in all the work and then realistically that does nothing to help the Nokia brand, it would all be for Google. Thus WP7 is really the only choice with these considerations in mind and I’m sure Microsoft was more than happy to welcome Nokia into the fray.
For a developer like me this just adds fuel to the WP7 fire that’s been burning in my head for the past couple months. Although it didn’t take me long to become semi-competent with iPhone SDK the lure of easy WP7 development has been pretty hard to ignore over the past couple months, especially when I have to dive back into Visual Studio to make API changes. Nokia’s partnership with Microsoft means that there’s all the more chance that WP7 will be a viable platform for the long term and as such any time spent developing on it is time well spent. Still if I was being truly honest with myself I’d just suck it up and do Android anyway but after wrangling with Objective-C for so long I feel like I deserve a little foray back into the world of C# and Visual Studio goodness and this announcement justifies that even more.
Market research is a great way to procrastinate. I’ve spent quite a lot of time getting to know what platforms I should be targeting just so that I don’t waste my actual development time on building something that no one will bother using. In this time that would have been better spent actually coding something I’ve come to notice an interesting trend in the world of mobile applications: everyone seems to be ignoring the biggest market of them all, Symbian. Owned by Nokia Symbian smart phones still dominate the market with over 45% market share which dwarfs all of its competitors to the point of being more than RIM (Blackberry) and iPhone combined. So why isn’t every other developer jumping at the opportunity to exploit this market to the point that they have done for the likes of Android and the iPhone? The answer, to me at least, has its roots in simplistic ideals but overall is quite convoluted.
At its heart the neglect of the Symbian platform can be traced back to one thing: money. Symbian has been around for quite some time (its ancestors can be found as far back as the late 1980s) although its current incarnation in the world of smartphones made its first appearance back in 2001, opening up a world where a phone’s capabilities could be expanded by the installation of third party applications. Its release was closely followed by the first release of PocketPC (later renamed Windows Mobile) that supported smartphones but Symbian still had the upper hand thanks to its uptake with many of the large phone manufacturers. As time went on Symbian found its way onto nearly all of Nokia’s advanced handsets which, coupled with their easy to use interface and overwhelming feature sets, led to astonishing popularity with the 100 millionth Symbian handset being sold only 5 years later with total shipments today exceeding 390 million.
Still unlike the iPhone or Android platform there really wasn’t any incentive to develop for them. The segmentation of both the Symbian and Windows Mobile market was and still is quite vast with no real guarantee of what features or specifications one phone might have. Whilst there are still many applications that can be developed despite these limitations many developers shunned the mobile space because apart from corporate applications there was no tangible way to monetize their efforts. Then along comes the iPhone with one standard set of hardware, a large fanbase and a distribution channel with built in monetization for any developer willing to shell out the $99 fee. After that the mobile space began to open up considerably but Symbian, even with its giant market share, has yet to capitalize on the mobile application market.
This means that whilst the Symbian market might be the largest of them all its also the least likely for any developer to be able to profit from. Symbian handsets cater to a much larger market than any other, including the lower end that even Android fails to capture. Unlike Apple, which deliberately targeted a market with cash to spare, Symbian users are the least likely to pony up some cash for an application. Additionally since there’s been no real central, easy to use medium for users to get applications on their Symbian phones (I know, I tried it on my N95) the vast majority of them won’t be in the mindset to go after such an application, favouring web based applications instead.
There is also, of course, the technical challenge behind building an application on these platforms. Whilst I’ve only dabbled in Windows Mobile (which for a C# developer was incredibly easy) recent reportsshow that Symbian is not only the hardest it also requires two to three times the amount of code to complete the same application on an iPhone or Android handset respectively. Whilst learning another language is really just a lesson in semantics it still slows your development time down considerably and when you’ve got your eye on making some money from your venture a steep learning curve will be a major barrier to entry. There has been some work to reduce this somewhat with the integration of the S60 platform with the open source cross platform library QT, but my previous experiences with that framework don’t make me so hopeful that it will make developing for Symbian any easier.
The ignored giant Symbian is an interesting phenomenon as intuition would tell you that the largest install base would drive the largest secondary markets. As a developer I still find it hard to ignore the call of almost 400 million devices that could possibly run my software but knowing a few people who own Symbian devices (read: they use their phone as a phone, not much else) I still feel like my effort would be better spent elsewhere. As time goes by it will be interesting to see if Symbian can continue to hold onto its dominance in this space or if they will eventually lose out to the young upstarts Android and iOS.