YEARS of neglect have left the once mighty telecoms equipment manufacturer, Nokia, fighting for its life. With the vultures circling, the firm is determined to take a knife to a gunfight.
The firm, best known for its mobile phone handsets, has lost its way by forgetting what made it the top handset maker. A decade ago Nokia had the world within its palm, now, thanks primarily to severely outdated software, it can barely raise a hand to signal for help. Rewind to the thick of the 1990s and the story was so different.
Underpinning its fashionable mobile phones was sound technology. Nokia popularised hidden antennas in mobile phones and did so without creating the mess Apple whipped up. The firm even ‘persuaded' Keanu Reeves to use a Nokia 8110 in The Matrix, propelling the device to near cult status. Nokia had droves of kids buying its phones just to control a line of pixels across a screen. App store? What's the point when you have the original killer app.
While movie appearances and fiddly games may have worked on the PlayStation generation, Nokia knew what it was doing when it came to business oriented phones. The original workman's phone was the Nokia 6210. The handset epitomised what Nokia was about, focused design that met the needs of the intended user. The phone was such a hit that once Nokia announced it would stop making the devices, businesses clamoured to get hold of the last few phones.
The difference between then and now could not be wider. Nokia not only has an image problem, its phones can barely keep pace with the chasing pack. The uncomfortable truth is all mobile phone manufacturers are chasing Apple, a company that has a single product in its phone portfolio. Once the leader, Nokia has fallen so far behind that its devices aren't even mentioned in the same breath as Apple's Iphone, Samsung's Galaxy S, Motorola's Droid X or HTC's Desire. The curious part? Apple reached the top by copying Nokia.
Apple might be many things but its CEO Steve Jobs and lead designer Jonathan Ive are a double act that is almost without equal. They created a mobile phone that, even when unable to function as a phone, still sells out. And the best part? It really isn't just about the looks. The Iphone always combined looks with functionality, a trick Nokia managed rather well in the latter decades of the 20th century.
Firms such as Nokia will go to great lengths to point out that smartphones represent the high margin, low volume end of the market. It is the cheap handsets that really drive sales and prop up a company's balance sheet. That's true, but the whole point of a showcase product such as the Iphone is to give consumers something to aspire to. Nokia simply has nothing in its range that will make consumers think about any of its products once they are out of sight.
Nokia's image problem isn't solely from the aesthetics of its products, many of which should be covered with a paper bag when placed next to Apple's Iphone 4 or Sony's Xperia X10. No, the problem is almost entirely with the software. The firm's insistence to stick with its Symbian operating system has cost it almost everything.
Not only did the firm underestimate the popularity of touchscreen devices, when it did produce them, the operating system felt like it was designed by someone who thought sitting on a spike would be good for ergonomics. After using Nokia's N97 Mini for several months, it's hard to see why anyone would subject themselves to this level of frustration on a daily basis.
Putting aside the device's flaws, of which there are many, it's blatantly obvious that the operating system wasn't designed for touchscreen input. The list of faults is extensive, starting from basic ergonomics and going all the way up to a level of finish that could be outshone by a single teenage coder in his parents' basement. There's a general feeling that as Nokia watched competitors bring out new features, it felt compelled to simply bolt their equivalents onto a cumbersome and creaking operating system.
One look at Motorola and how it has prospered since dropping its various home made operating systems in favour of Google's Android should serve as motivation for Nokia. The popularity of its Droid and Droid X is a testament to putting user requirements over corporate pride. Even Samsung, which hedged its bets between Bada and Android, has managed to coin a couple of winners with the Galaxy S and Wave handsets.
Nokia has gone from having a sense of desperation to being in the centre of its own disaster zone. First the firm came out with the positive news that it will load its all new operating system, Meego, onto its high end N-series phones. The joy of having a clear destiny was short lived as moments after announcing a terrible set of financial figures, Nokia's CEO Olli-Pekka Kallasvuo said that he was confident of selling 50 million devices based on the Symbian^3 operating system, found on its N8 smartphone.
It's not surprising to hear a CEO gush about his firm's latest product, but when you hear marketing guff to justify the existence of two operating systems you know something is wrong. Kallasvuo waxed lyrical about how Symbian and Meego have different "sweetspots" and that Symbian is about creating a "broad mass market footprint" while Meego's "speed and agility" is good for "flagship solutions". Cutting through the layers of schmaltz, it's obvious the firm simply hasn't got a clue about how to get out of its own mess.
The firm nailed high quality production decades ago, something that Apple is clearly trying to grapple with. Throughout its range, handset specifications won't be found wanting and the Scandinavian firm's design credentials, though at times unconventional, have rarely come into question. The problem clearly lies in its software.
It is clear, even at this early stage, that Meego offers a chance for Nokia to ditch the legacy look and feel of Symbian and replace it with something that looks fresh. The firm that led the market by adorning its phones with clean, functional software needs to once again focus on software.
After half a decade of stagnation in mobile phone software, Apple changed everything with the Iphone and the App Store. By contrast Nokia's Ovi store looks like the sort of knock-off you would find being flogged down the local market. It might well do the same job as the App Store but its accessibility is a world away from the simplicity of either the App Store or the Android Market.
With developers unsure whether Nokia's devices will run Symbian or Meego, why should they bother grappling with two different software development kits to appear on devices that are being made by a company that is dying on its feet. Some clear leadership is required and Kallasvuo's recent comments only serve to muddy the waters.
The recent dismal financial figures are a wake-up call for the firm. In six months' time come Mobile World Congress (MWC), it needs to tip up with a bunch of phones that not only look the part, but have Meego running on them. It needs to rally developers to its cause and show that their efforts will be profitable for both Nokia and themselves. All this will have to occur against the backdrop of growing competition.
By MWC 2011, Microsoft will have played its ace in the smartphone market with Windows Phone 7, Apple presumably will have fixed the numerous problems with the Iphone 4, not that they have hindered sales thus far, and the number of phones running Android will have grown, again. Even ignoring Research In Motion (RIM), the market is getting over populated and Nokia simply cannot be peddling a confusing range of phones any longer.
Nokia needs to make a firm decision on which operating system its phones will run. It needs to communicate with developers, convincing them that developing for its devices isn't a waste of time. Above all, Nokia needs to take software seriously, because if it doesn't, other handset manufacturers will be happy to take its place. µ
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