Wednesday, 16 May 2007

Nokia, the computer company?

Ten years from now, Nokia's going to be the subject of an interesting business case study. It'll either be the stirring story of a company at the height of its power that had the courage to challenge its deepest beliefs. Or it'll be the cautionary tale of a company that had it all and blew it.

Nokia says it's planning for what comes after the mobile phone.

I've heard this from Nokia before, but I always used to think it was posturing. Companies say that sort of thing all the time -- "we're looking for the next big growth driver" or something like that, meaning they plan to keep doing all the same stuff they do today but also desperately hope they can grow another line of business alongside it. That's typical in business; you try to have your cake and eat it too.

But after hearing several senior Nokia people repeat the message over the last couple of months, I've started to believe they're saying something different. Don't get me wrong, I'm not trying to say they are about to abandon mobile phones. But I think they sincerely believe that business won't last forever, and they're starting to lay the groundwork for what will replace it.

The message really hit home last month, when I heard it from Nokia CTO Tero Ojanpera and Bob Iannucci, head of Nokia Research Center, at a Nokia strategy briefing in Silicon Valley. Iannucci pointed out that Nokia started as a paper mill and has a history of completely changing its industry from time to time -- from rubber boots to monitors to mobile phones. He said it is once again "a company in transition to the next phase." That next phase is mobile computing.

Not smartphones, not converged devices, but full-on mobile computers intended to replace both PCs and mobile phones. Nokia says it expects these devices to eventually sell in the billions of units, and to become the world's dominant means of accessing the Internet.

Even though these future devices will still be mobile, if you take all of Nokia's statements at face value the changes from mobile phones will be so extensive that it's fair to call it a new business.

The fact that Nokia's even talking about this is a remarkable change. Five years ago, Microsoft was charging hard in mobile and the big topic of discussion was how could a company like Nokia possibly defend itself. Now Nokia's talking about how it will put the PC industry out to pasture, and oh by the way take over the Internet as well.

Although the goal is almost insanely ambitious, I can't say that Nokia is wrong to try. Mobile phones are gradually becoming a commodity. The biggest unit growth is in low-end phones, a strength for Nokia because of its volumes and efficiencies. But even Nokia managers will tell you that creating low-end products in a saturating market is not a fun business. It certainly won't produce the sort of growth and margins that investors expect.

Nokia's not predicting the instant death of the mobile phone business. It's a very large and divisionalized company, and I'm sure big chunks of Nokia are hell-bent on staying a mobile phone company forever. But it sounds like the senior management feels the mobile phone business is becoming uninteresting, and they want to get started on the next thing before the current business rides off into a long Nordic sunset.

The hard part is implementing

Becoming a mobile computing company is a lot harder than talking about it. The mobile phone world is based on managed competition, in which operators, handset vendors, and governments create shared standards even as they compete. It's a closed circle in which new features flow down from the top like molasses running down a cake of ice, driven by fiat from the leading vendors.

The computing world is much more Darwinian. Barriers to entry are lower, and innovation often flows up from the smallest players. Companies compete in something that resembles a free-for-all, with the marketplace choosing winners.

So what Nokia's talking about is not just a change in product design. It's more like a wholesale remaking of the company's culture, processes, and partnerships. The advantage of this for Nokia is that if it successfully makes the transition, it will have put everyone else in the mobile phone industry -- handset vendors and operators -- at a permanent disadvantage, unless they can make the same wrenching transition.

The disadvantage is that the change is pretty darned wrenching for Nokia as well.

Nokia seems to understand at least some of the changes it has to make in order to be a computing company. Iannucci acknowledged that the "Internet model" of product development is to create and ship products first, and then bother about standards later (if at all).

He said Nokia's research labs, formerly fairly closed, have re-oriented themselves to work collaboratively with universities and other parties in the industry. The collaboration part is essential because "we can no longer fuel...internally" the amount of technology the company has to develop now that it wants to be a computing company.

Thus the briefing in California -- they want to be a part of the peculiar hive mind we call Silicon Valley.

The transition will be awkward

One amusing example was when a Nokia speaker solicited feedback from the audience on what barriers to success they see in the mobile marketplace.

A VC shot up his hand: "Operators."

Dead silence for a second. Then the Nokia speaker asked uncomfortably, "what in particular about operators?"

And you had to laugh a bit, because the question didn't really need to be explained. What the questioner meant was: "we want the operators dead; are you going to help make that happen?" Everyone in the room knew that. Nokia knew that. The question was a test of Nokia's seriousness.

Nokia didn't exactly pass the test. They won't answer that question on stage because it creates too many political issues for the current mobile phone business. So what could have been a nice bonding moment between Nokia and the Silicon Valley folks degenerated into a carefully nuanced spiel about "we're working together to address many issues" and bland verbiage like that. They ended the Q&A soon after.

Lesson: If you want to bond with somebody, be prepared to discuss the issues they care about. And don't ask for feedback unless you're prepared to answer tough questions.

Next steps

Here are some other issues that I think Nokia will need to work through if it really wants to bond with Silicon Valley.

Get real about the role of mobile computing. As far as I can tell, Nokia's hoping that the mobile computer will literally replace PCs. I think that's both naive and unnecessarily limiting to Nokia's prospects. Mobile usage is a different paradigm from personal computing. You use a PC in a long sessions at a static location; you use a mobile while on the go, in places where a PC isn't convenient. That different usage pattern means the users are likely to have different requirements and different expectations for mobiles than they have for PCs. If Nokia tries to just make mini-PCs, it's probably going to end up with products that don't deliver on the great new stuff that mobile computing can really do.

To give a rough analogy, if the mobile phone companies had focused only on making land lines mobile, would they have ever invented SMS?

Nurture developer communities. Nokia has a very extensive developer support organization, but I'm not yet seeing the sort of broad-scale evangelism -- developer recruitment -- that an Apple or Microsoft practices. To really win over the best developers, it's not enough to just make their development tasks easy, you have to make sure they have the opportunity to make money. No one's doing that well in the mobile space today. Including Nokia.

The mobile software companies continue to flail around trying to figure out which company can build a business opportunity worth committing to. The opportunity is there for Nokia, but it has to invest in building the market.

Manage Adobe vs. Microsoft vs. Sun. Nokia said it's working very closely with Adobe on Apollo, the new software operating layer derived from Flash and Acrobat. The implication is that Nokia will distribute the mobile version of Apollo on its phones, just as it distributes Flash today.

There are two potential downsides to this. The first is that Adobe might lose -- it's facing strong competition from Microsoft's Silverlight, and apparently from a revamped version of mobile Java from Sun (I'm planning to write about that one in the future). If one of the others wins, Nokia might end up deeply committed to a failing standard.

The second danger is that Adobe might win, leaving Nokia at the mercy of a mobile software standard controlled by a different company. Replacing the Microsoft monopoly with an Adobe monopoly would be delightful for Adobe, but it isn't going to feel like much of a win for Nokia.

Learn to design solutions, not gadgets. I think this is Nokia's biggest challenge. The most popular mobile computing products so far have been integrated hardware-software systems aimed at a single usage: GameBoy, iPod, BlackBerry, and of course the mobile phone itself. Nokia hasn't been notably good at designing this sort of integrated system. In fact, its most prominent effort so far, the nGage, was an epic failure on the scale of the Edsel and the presidential campaign of Michael Dukakis.

But if Nokia really wants to be a mobile computing company, this is a skill it absolutely must learn. It is an incredibly hard change for Nokia, because computing systems design requires a very strong culture of product managers who understand the customer and have dictatorial control over the features and interface of the product. A good computing system is a product of idiosyncratic vision. Collectivist Nokia, with its endless conversations and responsibility fragmented across dozens of teams, is in a terrible situation to pull this off. Frankly, I'm skeptical that they can do it.

But on the other hand, if they can turn a pulp mill into a mobile phone company, would you really bet against them?

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