Tuesday, 4 March 2008

Nokia and Microsoft, sittin' in a tree...

There's so much hype in the mobile industry that I'm always reluctant to use a word like "shocking," but nothing else fits Nokia's announcement today that it will support Microsoft Silverlight.

If you missed the press release (link), Nokia said that it's going to make Microsoft Silverlight available for all of its mobile platforms -- Series 40 (the low-end phone OS), S60 (the high-end OS), and its Maemo Internet tablet. (It's not clear if Silverlight will be bundled or just offered as a download.) Silverlight is a web app graphics and interface layer, intended to displace Adobe Flash.

The announcement was shocking for several reasons:

--Up until now, Nokia and Adobe had worked together closely. Nokia is one of the few companies paying to bundle Flash on its phones, and Nokia had featured Adobe prominently at some of its developer events in Silicon Valley. So the announcement I was expecting was that Nokia would bundle Air, the next evolution of Flash, rather than its competitor.

--Nokia has generally treated Microsoft as the spawn of the devil. The whole Symbian OS consortium was designed primarily as a way to prevent Microsoft from getting a controlling role in mobile software. Now Nokia gives Microsoft's software layer a huge boost?

--Although Microsoft had hinted vaguely about taking Silverlight mobile, it had given no definite plans at all. So this is a huge step forward for Silverlight.

--Just a few weeks ago, Nokia bought TrollTech and announced that its software was going to unify development across Series 40 and S60. Now Nokia endorses Silverlight, which will also run across Series 40 and S60. Which one are developers supposed to focus on?

What in the world is going on?

I don't know. Nobody from Nokia has explained it to me, so I have to read between the lines. Nokia says in the press release: "Nokia aims to support market leading and content rich internet application environments and to embrace and encourage open innovation. By working with Microsoft, we are creating terrific opportunities and additional choices for the development community." Okay, so I guess what they're saying is that they want to support every platform and development option out there. Presumably the benefit to them is that they can claim their phones support more software than anyone else.

I doubt that's the only motivation, though. By supporting numerous platforms, Nokia reduces the possibility that any one of them can dominate the market and push around Nokia. It also lets Nokia play the sides off against one another. I'm sure the threat of embracing Air made Microsoft give Nokia a very good deal on Silverlight, and no doubt Nokia will now use its Microsoft relationship to get business concessions from Adobe (assuming that Nokia still plans to work with Adobe at all; that's not entirely clear).

Anyway, I can sort of see how this all works for Nokia strategically, although it feels like Nokia is trying too hard to be clever. I'm not as clear on the benefits of all this for mobile developers and users. As was covered in last week's post on mobile apps (link), many developers view the proliferation of platforms as a problem, not a benefit. Microsoft itself said in the Nokia press release:
"We want to make sure developers and designers don't have to constantly recreate the wheel and build different versions of applications and services for multiple operating systems, browsers and platforms."

That's a pretty danged funny quote coming from a company that now offers at least four mobile platforms (two versions of Windows Mobile, Silverlight, Tablet PC, and does .Net CF count as a fifth?), in a press release from a company that apparently wants to support every platform available. If you really think platform confusion is a problem, guys, look in a mirror.

For users, the benefit of all this deal-making is unclear. We're stumbling into a world where you'll need to know details of which platforms are loaded on a particular phone in order to know which apps it can run. I can't think of a better way to discourage use of mobile applications.

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