Wednesday, June 8, 2011

Nokia's Real Screwup

Since Nokia went to panic mode some months ago, it has been led by the new CEO Stephen Elop, formerly of Microsoft. The Finnish media (and foreign, as well) has been publicizing stories about this man and his plans to fix, refine or rebuild Nokia - the pride of Finnish high-tech industry.

I used exclusively Nokia mobile phones from 1996 to 2010 - 1610, 5110, 3310, 3650, 6630, E70 and E71, in that order. Even though I jumped on the Android bandwagon by buying a Samsung Galaxy S a year ago and moved to United States, I have been following what is happening at Nokia - not the least because so many of my friends are employed (either directly or indirectly) by Nokia.

The Symbian operating system showed great promise when its first edition was running on the Nokia 3650. The year was 2003. The user interface was slow and unstable but with it, and the advanced hardware, the phone was ahead of all competition. Period. Many years later, it seemed as Symbian, while evolved, still had the same problems as before. A nasty architecture, stiff user experience and no real support for touch screens (that Nokia avoided). Symbian^3 then arrived, being touted as a great leap for both Symbian and Nokia.

In early 2011, it became clear to Elop and VP Kai Öistämö and the rest of the MeeGo team that their new Linux-based operating system for mobile devices will not be completed quickly enough to have the intended impact. (However, I must wonder how many phones per year do they think they need?). The new Nokia N9 flagship phone was apparently cancelled and most of the MeeGo and Symbian development axed. The Windows Phone operating system from Microsoft was brought in. Elop indeed rocked the boat and caused huge ripples with his (alleged) comments and opinions about Nokia's products.

There has been a lot of speculation about how Nokia actually screwed up. The big and formerly innovative company ended up wasting resources in projects that never matured and managers stopped real innovative projects. Sure, something had to be done and possibly even moving to Windows Phone was the right choice.

The way Elop handled the crisis (read Nokia CEO Stephen Elop rallies troops in brutally honest 'burning platform' memo?) was not proper. I think right now, that is the apparent screwup.

I recall Steve Ballmer said that the Finnish engineers are the best in the world (could not find the exact quote). He is probably right. At the same time, there have not been so many positive comments coming from the new CEO of Nokia. He has compared Nokia to a burning platform. What do you do to a burning platform? You probably jump away and abandon and sink it, and build a new one. For a major technology company, that does not sound right. There should be a managed transition.

Right now, there are still millions of happy (or unhappy) users and owners of Nokia's Symbian and Maemo smartphones in the world. Thousands of developers who create software for these platforms and are using the Ovi Store to distribute their work. Millions of outlets around the world selling the phones to customers. As the Symbian and Maemo/MeeGo systems have been effectively abandoned and defaced, what is going to be the sales pitch for these devices? While the systems are being phased out, Nokia still has to put out phones until they can use Windows Phone in all of their new smartphones (excluding S40, of course).

I have the feeling that the message the Nokia of Elop is giving is:

  • To users: We lied. Actually, our phones are crap and you still use them.
  • To developers: You are developing for dead platforms. You are idiots. Get a job!
  • To Nokia employees: You are crap. Get a job!
  • To affiliates and the distribution network and outlets: You sell crap, and you will be selling crap, until we get our new phones out. Good luck!
Apple is not remembered for its failures (there have been many) but for its successes, but here it seems that the whole Nokia (or at least the mobile communications division of it) is a failure. Stephen Elop might be on the right track in restoring Nokia into a company that actually innovates and makes money but at the same time he rebuilds Nokia into something that is a bit alien to us, and causalities from the destruction of the old Nokia will be haunting its efforts to climb to spotlights. It will be but a hardware manufacturer and I doubt there will be much pride in it.

1 comment :

  1. I left Nokia in 1H/2009, and the company had been in complete panic mode for more than a year then. (Think about the missteps leading to the release of N97 amidst the pressure from iPhone)

    This is what (Finnish) people don't understand; the depth and severity of the crisis. It started years ago and the personnel just closed their eyes and concentrated on denying it.

    Now Elop is trying to save whatever there is to be saved. Which might not be much.