The Microsoft-Nokia alliance turned out to be a lot more interesting than the pre-announcement rumors made it out to be. Rather than just a bundling deal for mobile Office, the press release says they'll also be co-developing "a range of new user experiences" for Nokia phones, aimed at enterprises. Those will include mobile Office, enterprise IM and conferencing, access to portals built on SharePoint, and device management.
Of those items, the IM and conferencing ideas sound the most promising to me. Office, as I explained in my last post, is not much of a purchase-driver on mobile phones. And I think Microsoft would have needed to provide Nokia compatibility in its mobile portal and device management products anyway.
I understand the logic behind the alliance. Nokia has never been able to get much traction for its e-series business phones, and Microsoft hasn't been able to kick RIM out of enterprise. So if they get together, maybe they can make progress. But it's easy to make a sweeping corporate alliance announcement, and very hard to make it actually work, especially when the partners are as big and high-ego as Microsoft and Nokia. This alliance will live or die based on execution, and on a lot of details that we don't know about yet.
Here are four questions I'd love to see answered:
What specifically are those "new user experiences"?
If Nokia and Microsoft can come up with some truly useful functionality that RIM can't copy, they might be able to win share. But the emphasis in the press release on enterprise mobility worries me. The core users for RIM are communication-hungry professionals. If you want to eat away at RIM's base, you need to excite those communicator users, and I'm not sure if either company has the right ideas to do that. As Microsoft has already proven, pleasing IT managers won't drive a ton of mobile phone purchases.
Will Microsoft really follow through?
Microsoft has been hinting for the last decade that it was were willing to decouple mobile Office from the operating system, but they never had the courage to follow through. Now they have announced something that sounds pretty definitive, but the real test will be whether they put their best engineers on the Nokia products. If Microsoft assigns its C players to the alliance, or tries to make its Nokia products inferior to their Windows Mobile versions, the alliance won't go anywhere interesting.
What does this do to Microsoft's relationships with other handset companies?
Imagine for a moment that you are the CEO of Samsung. Actually, imagine that for several moments. You aren't exclusive with Microsoft, but you've done a lot of phones with Windows Mobile on them. Now all of a sudden Microsoft makes a deal with a company that you think of as the Antichrist.
How do you feel about that?
I can tell you that Samsung is not the most trusting and nurturing company to do business with even in the best of times. So I think you make two phone calls. The first is to Steve Ballmer, asking very pointedly if you can get the same software as Nokia, on the same terms, at the same time. If you don't like the answer to that question, your next call is to Google, regarding increasing your range of Android phones.
Maybe the reality is that Microsoft has given up on Windows Mobile and doesn't care what Samsung does. But that itself would be interesting news.
I would love to know how those phone calls went today.
What does RIM do about this?
It has been putting a lot of effort into Apple-competitive features like multimedia and a software store. Does it have enough bandwidth to also fight Nokia-Microsoft? What happens to its core business if Microsoft and Nokia do come up with some cool functions that RIM doesn't have? Are there any partners that could be a counterweight to Microsoft and Nokia? If I'm working at RIM, I start to think about alliances with companies like Oracle and SAP. And I wonder if Google is interested in doing some enterprise work together.