Thursday, April 23, 2009

Ovi Must Get It Right. So Far it Hasn't.

Nokia Ovi logo.Image via Wikipedia

Disclosure: I say this as someone who actually wanted to work there, had an awkward experience finding out he was rejected, and still would want to work there.

The Ovi application store for Nokia phones will only work if Nokia is ready to do what it has always avoided: make really hard choices for usability.

Nokia has always been a little lazy in that regard. Nokia shoots for 'excellent' user experiences, but bows for 'market realities' like how much money to spend vs projected win, the consensus organization, and realizing that most people will procure a handset based mostly on what is the cheapest anyway, so they can get huge numbers with a 'really good' user experience. My latest case for this is the 5800: a reworking of their good old S60 operating system to be a touch-screen phone, slammed out the door with that reworking being, well, incomplete. It's just not the gliding, zooming, smoothing, finger-swiping exprience the iPhone is. At one point I actually had to switch to some stylus thingie to scroll a scrollbar. The creative department tried to deal with that by making the stylus look like a plectrum so as to make it a 'feature' in this whole 'music phone' experience. Oh god, who do you think you are you kidding?

Gets worse when your product for them actually doesn't make money. When I worked for them, all departments that made PC software that was not sold -- the Nokia Music application of the time, the NMIT that I worked on -- simply did not get enough resources to be world class. In 2002 Nokia was bundling a PC music application with their phones of which the team did not have the budget to create CDDB connections, so the user still had to enter their own album data after ripping. Yeah, sure. That'll make your music phones a joy to use.

Committed as Nokia claims to be to usability -- and they do, they so do score better in that regard than 90% of all gadget makers out there -- usability is not king at Nokia. Margins are. There is no maniac at the top making sure nothing goes out that isn't a joy to use. Good enough is good enough to launch.

Disney spent a fortune creating a password system that spans all the Go properties. Apple has a password and billing system that goes from seamlessly buying a song to downloading developer documentation without bothering users with what the computer already knows. Ovi was launched years ago with two or three different login/password systems that weren't synchronized: the N-Gage passwords, the music passwords, and whatever other password might come up for Widsets and Mosh and whatever else now is being rolled into it. Who taints their future brand, been played up for years now, by sending out such a clunky version 1? What was it telling me as a customer? Little kingdoms fighting again? Nobody cared enough to see me as one human?

Now Nokia says Ovi will truly this time be their destination for downloadable software for phones, gaming, music downloads. Their app store, their iTunes. Well, their app store used to be the 'Download!' application that worked with premium SMSes that always got sent twice to me in the UK, or required entering credit card data in the US. Now this will go into Ovi, and launch in 9 regions, including the US, with a "seamless experience" (their words) but they have just lost carrier billing in the US. This means that in the USA, downloading an app will not automatically be charged to your phone bill, something that would enable every 15 year old to download to their hearts content or as far as their Pay-As-You-Go balance allows, whichever limit gets hit first. This is something that is getting rolled out on app stores in the UK, and it works really well for the user. It would have been a great advantage in the USA. And not having to futz around and wait for premium texts or having to enter a credit card every time on a 12-button keypad is key here; being able to download a new iPhone app with just a couple of touches here and there is what makes that platform so compelling that people do actually download software and think of their phones as extendable devices to a degree of penetration and mindshare the N-Series never reached, even though the N-Series has always been just as capable.

I love hearing Ovi was at least trying to get it. That makes me really happy. Nokia is a great company and has lots of volume; if they finally get their software services together they can be a true powerhouse that grows the mobile ecosystem into wild new spaces. But only if they can get away from their current track record of releasing what is "good enough" instead of not stopping and aligning all corners, cubies, managers, goals, software factories, incentives, and decisions inside the company until the results of the project are truly wonderful.