Tuesday, 29 January 2008

Nokia, the OS company

Nokia bought Trolltech for about $150 million, and there's all sorts of speculation online about what it means. Before I get to that, let me quickly summarize what Trolltech does:

Trolltech is a Norwegian company that makes development tools and Linux software. Its best-known products are Qt (a software layer and development tools for writing applications that run across multiple operating systems, including Windows, Mac, and Linux), Qtopia (a user interface and applications layer for Linux), and Qtopia Phone Edition (a Linux software environment for mobile phones).

In the mobile world, Qtopia Phone Edition has been the company's best-known product, although it hasn't exactly been a commercial success. Motorola uses a version of Qt in its Linux mobile phones, but not all of Qtopia. The Sony Mylo mobile device uses Qtopia, as did the Sharp Zaurus PDAs. But Trolltech had so much trouble getting a mainstream phone licensee for Qtopia that it created its own hardware prototype, the Greenphone. (Out of fairness, I should add that Trolltech has a lot of other tiny licensees you've never heard of; you can see the full list here.)

The obvious assumption would be that Nokia bought Trolltech for its phone technology, but that's not what Nokia says. The company's press release says Trolltech will help advance its "cross-platform software strategy for mobile devices and desktop applications, and...Internet services business. With Trolltech, Nokia and third party developers will be able to develop applications that work in the Internet, across Nokia's device portfolio and on PCs."

All About Symbian reinforced that message, reproducing a slide from the Nokia press briefing that showed Qt layered on top of Nokia Series 40, S60, and a variety of desktop PC operating systems (link). The Guardian quoted a Nokia spokesperson as saying the emphasis of the deal is development tools: "This is about Trolltech's fantastic tools. You can much faster develop programmes which can work on multiple platforms." (link).

Vnunet quoted an analyst saying that Nokia will use Qtopia to help deploy its Ovi Internet services cross-platform (link). I don't really see the Internet connection; Qtopia has not been a contender in the net applications world the way that Flash and Silverlight are. But maybe Nokia wants to build it into a contender.

Other analysts suggested other motivations for the purchase. Some of the commentary on Slashdot suggested that Nokia is investing in Linux to counter Google Android (link). ArsTechnica suggested that Nokia might be planning to replace S60 with Qt (link), while others suggested that Nokia plans to use Linux instead of Symbian. Richard Windsor of Nomura pointed out in an e-mail analysis that the purchase of Qt rips the guts out of Motorola's Linux plans, although he guesses that's more of a happy side effect for Nokia than the primary motivation.

But an unsigned article on ZDNet UK had the most sweeping interpretation, basically saying that this spells certain death for all proprietary operating systems (link):

Nokia's bet is that the sheer size of the Qt 4-based market will be a decisive inducement for everyone else, handset makers, operators, and pure applications players alike, and that the explosion in compatibility will amplify the market for everyone much as happened on the desktop when MS-DOS anointed the PC architecture. But unlike then, Qt 4 will break forever the idea that one part of the market can seal itself off as a profitable mini-universe, an idea as archaic in the 21st century as the feudalism it so closely resembles.

As we say here in California, I want some of what he's been smoking.

What does it really mean?

We're all assuming that Nokia actually has a coherent master plan here. Although $150m is a lot of money to me personally, it's mouse nuts to Nokia. Maybe Nokia bought Trolltech just as an experiment, or to keep it from falling into some other company's hands. The fact that Nokia's going to continue to develop its Maemo version of Linux, which is not based on the Trolltech technology, suggests a certain amount of incoherence.

If you want to be really Machiavellian, you could speculate that this purchase is the Nokia mobile phone organization's answer to Maemo -- "you tablet guys keep your version of Linux, now we have our own."

But let's assume there really is a plan, and it's aimed at competitors. About six months ago, I wrote about Nokia's ambitions to be a computer company (link). Now we see them dealing themselves into the operating system competition as well. No matter what you think Nokia's motives are, the fact is that it's now the owner of a respectable cross-platform software layer that runs on PCs and mobile devices. Nokia is now a software layer company, in very direct competition with other layer companies like Microsoft and Adobe and Sun. The deal also makes Nokia a much more important player in the open source community. And it puts Nokia in more direct opposition to the companies with their own operating systems -- Apple and Google and (once again) Microsoft.

That's a huge potential change. I say "potential" because Nokia has a lot more to do if it really wants to compete. The Trolltech team will need more investment (they have been losing money) and Nokia has a lot of work to do in developer evangelism and support to make the challenge real. But the potential is there.

I think that as the implications of the deal become clear, Nokia may have trouble continuing to partner with some of its new competitors. For example, it has spent a lot of time positioning itself as a partner to Adobe Air, but it's hard to see the evolved Qt as anything other than a competitor. Same thing for Google.

As for how this fits with all of Nokia's other products, I'm having a lot of trouble understanding how Qt will cohabit with S60 and Series 40. What exactly are developers supposed to develop for, and which user interface will the phones feature? If Nokia tries to keep all of them going, its phone software is going to look like a petit four, with layers stacked on layers stacked on layers. That makes for a nice pastry, but in a mobile phone it's a recipe for bad performance and short battery life. It's also a certain way to confuse developers.

So a lot depends on Nokia's next steps. Does Qt replace Series 40 and S60? I don't know which group within Nokia made the Trolltech deal, but I wonder if the biggest competitive battle might end up being the one inside the company, between its competing software standards.

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