Sunday, 14 December 2008

Nokia: Running in molasses

Every time I think about Nokia and Symbian, I can't help picturing a man knee-deep in molasses, running as fast as he can. He's working up a sweat, thrashing and stumbling forward, and proudly points out that for someone knee-deep in molasses he's making really good time.

That thought came to me several times during a briefing day that Nokia and the new Symbian Foundation held recently in San Francisco. A recurring theme was a deeply earnest discussion of how big and complex their business is, and how proud they are that despite the complexity they can make forward progress. For example:

Charles Davies, CTO of the new foundation, pointed out to us that Symbian OS has about 450,000 source files. That's right, half a million files. They're organized into 85 "packages," all of which have been charted out in a diagram that will be posted soon on the foundation's website. Davies was proud that the diagram is in SVG format, so you can zoom in on it and see that "this is an architecture that's not just a plateful of spaghetti."

The diagram looks a bit like a plateful of very colorful spaghetti (although in fairness to Charles, that's true of every OS architecture diagram I've ever seen). Anyway, the big takeaway was how huge the OS is.

Davies talked about the substantial challenges involved in open sourcing a code base that large. He said it will take up to another two years before all of the code is released under the Eclipse license. In the meantime, a majority of the code on launch day of the foundation will be in a more restrictive license that requires registration and a payment of $1,500 for access. There's also a small amount of third party copyrighted code within Symbian, and the foundation is trying to either get the rights to that code, or figure a way to make it available in binary format.

Those are all typical problems when a project is moving to open source, and the upshot of them is that Symbian won't be able to get the full benefits of its move to open source until quite a while after the foundation is launched. What slows the process down is the amount of code that Symbian and Nokia have to move. I believe that Symbian OS is probably the largest software project ever taken from closed to open source. If you've ever dealt with moving code to open source, you'll know how staggeringly complex the legal reviews are. What Nokia and Symbian are doing is heroic, scary, and incredibly tedious. It's like, well, running in molasses.

Lee Williams, Nokia's software platform SVP who is moving over to become head of the Symbian foundation, picked up on the theme of massiveness. He said the OS is on 200 million devices, with 200 device types shipped and another 100 in development. With support for five different baseband modems, seven different processor architectures, symmetric multiprocessing, and a broad set of displays, "your options are dramatic and huge."

This sort of infrastructure is needed, he said, because IT, telecom, and the Internet "have merged almost completely.... It's the perfect storm of convergence. There's almost nothing it can't eat or it won't use." He compared its importance to the creation of movable type, color palettes, and the Renaissance.

He noted that some people think the Symbian Foundation is a response to Android and other competitive moves, but said the company can't move that fast, and actually the change was in the works long before Google announced its software.

At dinner, I had a chance to chat with one of the Nokia managers. He was kind enough to let me play around with a pre-release N97 (more on that below), and the discussion gravitated to the iPhone. He told me how excited he is by the many new products Nokia has in the labs but can't talk about yet, and expressed some frustration that people don't understand why it takes time for Nokia to respond to changes in the market. He described Nokia as a giant ship. "It takes a long time to turn it, but when we do..." he said ominously, and then reminded me that Netscape once had a lead over Microsoft before it was crushed.

The problem with talking to the folks from Nokia is that you're never sure what they believe vs. what's the official story they're trying to put out in the market. They're disciplined enough that they can stay on message quite well, and in most conversations they focus on talking about what they're doing rather than asking for feedback or getting into a two-way conversation.

So I'll assume that Nokia was being serious. In that case, let's look at some financials from 1997 (Netscape vs. Microsoft) and 2007 (Apple vs. Nokia):

All figures in millions of dollars.

Don't worry too much about revenue and net income; those are usually tied up by the ongoing operations of each company. The line I want you to focus on is cash. That is your ammunition -- the extra resource available to fund a big marketing campaign, or a new product development program, or an acquisition of an innovative new technology. Microsoft had 46 times more cash than Netscape in 1997, and it wasn't seriously threatened in any of its other core businesses. It could, and did, spend Netscape into the ground.

Apple has about the same cash hoard as Nokia. Much more importantly, Apple can focus that cash on a narrower battlefront. Its situation relative to Windows is relatively safe. Although Microsoft can never be ignored, it is innovating so slowly that Apple can take some profit from its PC business to fund other things. The music player business is also stable; although it's not growing like it used to, no one has come close to matching the integration of the iPod and iTunes. So Apple is free to spend huge wads of cash to establish its new iPhone business. It can pick the countries and vertical usages it wants to dominate, and as long as it doesn't do too many things at once, it can outspend almost any competitor.

Nokia, on the other hand, has battlefields everywhere:
--In mobile phones it's fighting Samsung, LG, and SonyEricsson, and a badly wounded (therefore desperate) Motorola.
--In entertainment smartphones it's fighting Apple.
--In communicators it's fighting RIM.
--In OS it's fighting Google, Microsoft, etc.
--In online services it's fighting Google, Yahoo, Microsoft, etc.

As Nokia EVP Anssi Vanjoki put it recently (link):

There’s a company that says they can index the world; we are going to go deeper - we are going to coordinate the world.

Sweet! He calls out Google and says he'll beat them in their core business. It's a noble effort. I love the company's ambition. But does Nokia have the resources to fight all those battles at once?

If the folks at Nokia really think they are well positioned to crush Apple, they need to go re-read The Innovator's Dilemma. Being big is not a benefit in a rapidly-changing market with emerging segments. A big company can't respond nimbly to that sort of change, and the segments attacked by new entrants are usually too small to justify huge investment by an incumbent. So new challengers like Apple and RIM pop up all around you, you gradually shed little chunks of market share, and you complain that people don't understand how powerful your core business is.

I am not at all saying that Nokia is doomed. They are an outstanding company, with smart people, a great brand, and enormous strengths. But they need to understand that turning the battleship a little faster won't win the war. Nokia's smartphone competitors are not standing in molasses; they won't stay still long enough for the 16-inch guns to be pointed at them. More importantly, the competitors on the services side breed like vampire rabbits. By the time you blow away a clutch of them, three dozen more have hatched and are sucking blood from the other side of the ship.

To succeed in smartphones, I think Nokia needs to start creating the sort of integrated software + hardware solutions that the smartphone winners excel at. And on the services side, it needs to start breeding its own killer rabbits (small entrepreneurial experiments that move fast and die quickly if they fail). So far what I think I see looks like a more design-savvy version of the smartphone business of Samsung (throw hardware at the wall and see what sticks) coupled with an effort to create a 16-inch cannon of services.

That's probably not enough to win in the long run. Nokia still has a lot of time to get it right. But do they really understand what needs to change? I can't tell, because all I usually get from them is monologues on how big their business is and how much cool stuff they have in the lab.


A few other tidbits from the day...

N97: Second cousin twice removed of the Revo. I got a chance to play with a pre-release N97, Nokia's upcoming qwerty phone. The screen slides sideways to reveal a little keyboard underneath.

The look and size of the device reminded me a little bit of the old Psion Revo, although it's a pretty distant echo. The sliding process of the screen has a very nice feel to it; it's the sort of physical detail that Nokia excels at. Even in a pre-release state, the phone felt nice and solid in my hand.

The software needs a lot more work, but they admitted that. It's a pre-release device. No worries at this point.

As for the keyboard, I thought it was mediocre. The keys, and especially the microscopic letters on them, are a little too small for my taste (I have big thumbs). Typing was slower than I expect on a thumb keyboard. I'd put it about on a par with the Blackberry Storm (that's the Blackberry with the on-screen keyboard). The Storm has bigger letters than the N97, and unlike David Pogue I like the tactile feedback when you tap on its screen, although it is not as good as a real keyboard.

So the N97 has real keys but they're too tiny, and the Storm has bigger keys but they're not real. The tiebreaker is the software -- the Storm is notoriously unstable (it took me about 40 seconds to crash it). I think neither product is ready for the market yet. Unfortunately for RIM, the Storm is already shipping.

The destiny of Trolltech. About a year ago, when Nokia purchased Trolltech, I wondered what they were going to do with it (link). Now we know -- Trolltech's Qt software layer is going to become a graphics layer for Symbian. No word on what happens to Trolltech's other products.

That's nice, but what's it good for? Symbian is adding symmetric multiprocessing to the OS. In a session discussing the change, a member of the audience asked what you'd use symmetric multiprocessing for on a mobile device.

Long pause. "Well, some games use it..." Another long pause.

This is the difficulty of taking a technology-only approach when talking to developers. Although software developers are technophiles, what they really care about is what sort of cool products you can enable them to build. If your feature doesn't let them do something cool, they won't care about it.

(By the way, according to an article here, the benefit will be in performance tuning and battery life -- critical to handset vendors, but sanitation issues to application developers.)

Some alternate opinions. Some other people briefed by Nokia are not as worried as me about the molasses thing. In the interest of balance, here are a few examples:

Commentary from SymbianOne (link).

Fabrizio over at Funambol (link).

SonyEricsson on the event (link). (Never mind, that was a report from 2003. I am so embarrassed.)

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