Thursday, July 15, 2010

Don't Pay Attention, I Am Just Venting About Nokia Smartphones

If you believe the analysis of the market share growth numbers, Nokia and RIM -- they make the BlackBerry devices -- are growing globally in smartphones, and Apple is flat. Yet all your friends either carry or want an iPhone, so what gives? Well, if you are wondering too and are reading this, what gives is that you are either in a specific minority of technology adepts, or in the US, and, knowing my readership, you are probably both. And you like iPhones so you have them and you read about them and it seems everyone has an iPhone, so how can anyone say Apple's marketshare of smartphones is not growing, if not downright flat? Did nobody see the lines in front of the store? (And can we say the iPhone is a luxury item when half the custodial staff in the office building I now work in seems to have them?) Well, all predictions are that Q3 2010 will be the best iPhone sales Apple will have ever seen, but that a huge amount went to previous iPhone users and not so many to new customers, globally.

And as far as Nokia's share goes, there is one fundamental business things that Nokia is very good at and has always been very good at: making sure that all the pieces and steps to make phones arrive at the right factory at the right time, and the end product ends up in the store at the right time, with never too little or too much inventory at any step. That's called 'logistics' and if you are really good at these kinds of predictions and fulfillment, you end up being able to make your products cheaper than your competitors while still being able to charge the same, or charge less and still make a good profit. Nokia does logistics well, so they can make a profit on value phones. Nokia also has a big portfolio of smartphones that are not all super duper high end range, the C and E series and other models. They run the Symbian smartphone operating system, but on cheap processors and with not that much memory.

The result is that Nokia has a whole set of mid-range "value" phones that they sell to countries and populations where expensive premium iPhones do not do well. So yes, people stand in line in Indonesia for a Nokia smartphone, a messaging phone, of a type that in the US only a teen would buy, if it was offered in the US at all. That's where their market growth is coming from: pushing 'advanced' models and capabilities down the hierarchy of consumers.

But however much its market share is still bigger or growing compared to Apple's in some views of the data, Nokia is not seen as a market leader. Their flagship smartphones have been getting mediocre to disastrous reviews for a while now, with some having been simply released way too early with flaws that the market simply will not stand for since Apple raised the bar with their first iPhone. Nokia Fanboy wisdom is that if you want to know what features Apple will release now, just look at what features Nokia flagships had 3 years ago -- but reality is that these are advanced features the market mostly ignores until Apple releases them, because Apple packages these features in such a way that users can find them where they expect them and not 3 menus deep, and in a way that makes them work.

Apple is just minor competition. Samsung wants Nokia's title of the premiere phone maker, and Samsung is willing to spend to get it, adopt any outside technology that will help, invent any advancement they need. And when it comes to cheap smartphones, nothing will beat Chinese manufacturers slapping together equipment with Google's free Android operating system on them. Google's Android is just bulldozing ahead on all sales fronts, because Android is both cheap for manufacturers to build devices with and does have what consumers want and Nokia and BlackBerry are lagging on: touchscreen devices, and a flourishing marketplace for cheap apps that is quick and easy to use. BlackBerry does have its wonderful messaging integration, but it doesn't get widely perceived as a fun media and apps machine (yet), and Nokia's smartphone system, Symbian, well, its services to integrate with the rest of the Internet are just a mess, its app store needs continuous upgrades to become acceptable, and the whole package of fun and media and discovery and ease of use is just not there right now. Their cheerleader bloggers are leaving, numbers keep coming out their consumers are considering other phones like Android or BlackBerry.

So what is next, what can Nokia do to take their lead back, to count again in innovation? Nokia has a new flagship device, the N8, they are readying to ship real soon. The device that has to erase the memory of how bad the N97 ended up being for many people and how clunky the 5800 was to use. I have held it, I have played with it and I can say the hardware is gorgeous. Now that every smartphone is some kind of dark slab with more black or some metallic plastic on the back, Nokia went for a textured all-metal enclosure, anodised in bright fun colors, that feels solid, with buttons that look and feel robust and real. The result is something unlike anything on the market: a device that feels like a serious machine yet manages to also be sleek and fresh. It has a soul. I wanted to lick my orange N8, expecting it to taste like ice-cold orange Fanta.

Nokia N8 from the side
Nokia N8 in blue. Image credit to Ben Smith from The Really Mobile Project and Rafe Blandford.

Nokia N8 from the side
Nokia N8 software. Image credit to Ben Smith from The Really Mobile Project and Rafe Blandford.
All I can say about the software, though, is what has already been seen in videos: yes it is fast and zippy, yes it is technically very accomplished underneath, and boy yes, it is just clunky looking. Symbian^3 is still stuck with too much black and grey, too many mental artifacts to keep track of (home screens, home buttons, widgets of all shapes and sizes creating jumpy lay-outs, application choosers with scroll bars that just recede into more black) and the whole thing just doesn't delight or surprise. Not the biggest surprise since Nokia spun Symbian off into its own Open Source consortium, and Open Source has no track record of truly beautiful and curated graphical user interfaces, depending as it must on the good-will of volunteers. I have been unable to confirm the Symbian Foundation has user testing labs, or commissions any user testing of its products, or can demand the manufacturers do it.

But we all know that what comes out of the box itself on the device is only half the story. The other half is how it relates to the Internet for maps and music and storage and getting applications. Well, for the services side, there is a portfolio of them, branded under the name Ovi. Half of the music store, "Ovi Comes With Music", is a non-starter for many: to this day, after years of being on the market, it still will not work with Apple Macintosh computers, nor browsers besides Internet Explorer, thus creating a ghetto. The tracks are also still heavily encumbered with Digital Rights Management while all other music stores have dropped that, which means tracks bought or rented from Nokia can not be transferred to other devices and you are basically locked to only your phone to listen to them or to a specific PC you can only change every 3 months. Yet what consumers want is to listen to their music everywhere and make it feel like they own their collection. Ovi Maps has its loyal fans but I personally find harder to work with on my device than Google Maps, Ovi Contacts currently confuses me, and the whole Ovi proposition is disjointed on the web from the art direction to the capabilities -- you'd think a service with a contacts manager and a mapping application would allow you to quickly see where your contacts live on a map. No such luck. And no real new services or integration now for years. Ovi has stagnated.

So, a flagship device with no good Internet services behind it, while Google and Apple integrate with your life on your computer and the web. What about applications? The new hot?

They are actually still hard to make for Nokia Symbian devices. Nokia is working hard to make it easier, transitioning to new toolkits, but word among developers is that even with the new tools you have to install this and install that and tune this package and that thingy, and when you actually have it all working, the development environment still does not compare to the tight experiences Google and Apple offer to develop on their devices. As said, Nokia is moving away from its traditional, impenetrable, awful Symbian C++ tools that take between 3 to 18 months to get fully proficient in, to a toolset called Qt and more standard C++. The idea was that if you wrote to Qt your application would work on Symbian phones and the new smartphone system Nokia co-built with Intel, MeeGo, but Qt is now being delivered with a different interface set for either Symbian or MeeGo so you will have to rewrite chunks of your app anyway, exactly what we were told would be avoided. Still, yes, there it is, Nokia has announced they are dropping Symbian for their flagship phones and going with this new MeeGo stuff.

Nokia is not just a smartphone maker. They are a phone maker with a vast portfolio of low and mid end mobile phones as well, phones that run on their Series 40 software platform that so many people know and love. The line-up will be Series 40 for low and mid-range, Symbian for messaging phones, MeeGo for the high end. Because of that logistics thing Series 40 phones are selling worldwide really well. So well they keep the company very much in the black, in markets other phone makers cannot touch because of their costs. But Series 40 are not attention-catching phones in future innovation, they do not put Nokia on the map of high-end innovators. You can't lead without owning smartphones because what is a smartphone now will be a featurephone (mid range) in 18 months and low end 18 months after that. Series 40, however, really works well, conserves battery, does well with little memory, and does get new features as phones get better.

The smartphone division has a new leader and he has promised to kick ass. He has got his work cut out for him. He will have to yell at every part of Ovi to get their frickin' act together and become an integrated system of services instead of the current demoralizing collection of silos (semi-secret: each Ovi service you see is made by its own team, and the teams are not in the same country. Try getting a coherent offering out of that). The bigger hurdle is that he will have to be willing to become very unpopular when he kills the bonuses for a lot of groups in the company when he holds back phones for simply not being ready or not being at a high enough standard. He doesn't have to just get out better phones, no, he will have to change the mentality of the company that makes them. Let's see him indeed ride rough over Nokia's Finnish consensus culture that so far has allowed smartphones that are at 80% of desirability to come out, something that used to work before Apple set the standard that a smartphone had to be 100% delightful -- a grade Apple sometimes doesn't even make. Let's see him give some real direction and alignment and make all those scatter-shot pieces one convincing whole. And then lets see him doing it with MeeGo.

So, are our hopes now on MeeGo? Only if Intel is breathing new ideas into it, and Intel is seriously hiring for it. You see, whether there is or isn't some stunning smartphone environment software inside Nokia waiting to come out is irrelevant: that innovative and beautiful software will have to pass the hurdle of the same mid-level managers that so far for the last three years have approved the N97 and 5800 and all the sameness blackness of Symbian^3, so why expect they will suddenly allow a huge change now -- assuming they even have it in their labs -- instead of more of the same? From the last 4 years I'd say the innovation in MeeGo will only happen if the Intel side of the cooperation comes up with it, because Nokia certainly hasn't shown it owns excellence in that process. Maybe Anssi can get new managers to let new designs flourish, and the pipeline of innovation will be great and mobile MeeGo will integrate seamlessly with online Ovi, and the whole experience will raise the bar above the coherent targeted experiences Apple and Google will come out with from their current advantage. Yeah.

Or more likely, after a few more years of bleeding innovation and bleeding fans Nokia will declare victory by saying that their mid-range Series 40 phones are now so smart and so good with their J2ME apps and their music players that Nokia does not need a separate smartphone division anymore, and pull out of that market altogether. They will coast some on an internal mythology of "making good solid tools the world actually uses while the other companies makes flashy nonsense phones" and say how that aligns with their no-nonsense Nordic roots, while completely losing their lead. The will become the Bic ballpens maker of the mobile phone world selling buckets and buckets of them in the developing world and in the cheap end of the portfolios of operators, while Mont Blanc fountain pens Apple gets all the headlines and aspiration.

Or not. The figures of Nokia's bleeding leadership will be put in front of the world next week when their quarterlies and outlooks come out, and hopefully their shareholders or board of directors will not want to sign up to being a commodity maker with a flat share price. Hopefully they will demand an end to the culture that allowed Nokia to be unable to produce good software in both their smartphones and their webservices, starting at the top that hasn't been able to pull mobile and online and ease and beauty together, that hasn't demanded it from the divsions they lead. Exciting times ahead for the Big Blue N then. But talking about Nokia turning this around is like talking about making the industrial changes to stop Global Climate Change: you know it can be done, many think it must be done, and yet it doesn't seem to really take off.

Me? After years of having had and used one of the first Symbian phones in the US when I tested for Nokia, of importing my own Symbian phones when I lived in the US after I had left Nokia, after having put my whole family on Nokia phones, am considering a cute Sony Ericsson Android phone. It is not lickably fresh-looking, though. I am kind of regretting that. The N8 really is something else.