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.