Thursday, 19 November 2009

The OS is always greener...

In a report from a developer meeting, Nokia officials said they're moving to Maemo Linux as the OS for their high-end smartphones. That resulted in an entertaining little obituary in the Register by Andrew Orlowski (link). But then later in the day Nokia clarified that "we remain firmly committed to Symbian as our smartphone platform of choice" (link). That in turn led to a lively online debate about what Nokia actually said, and the challenges that Finnish people face when speaking English (check the comments here).

It's just one more chapter in the long and exquisitely awkward saga of Nokia and Symbian. From the outside I can't tell exactly what's going on at Nokia, and it's possible that Nokia itself doesn't know. It's a very large company, and various groups there can have conflicting agendas.

But I can't believe that there would be all of these repeated reports, leaks, and artfully-worded partial denials unless Nokia were de-emphasizing Symbian in the long run. The most prominent theory, which I believe based on things I hear through back channels, is that Nokia does indeed intend to move to Maemo at the high end. And, as we all know, in computing whatever's at the high end eventually ends up in the mainstream.

I'm sure Nokia has valid technical reasons for moving to another OS. Nokia has said that there are some things it wants to do with its smartphones that Symbian OS can't support. But still the change worries me. Nokia's biggest problem in the smartphone market isn't the OS it uses, it's the user experience and services layer in its smartphones. Moving to a new OS does almost nothing to fix that. It does force a lot of engineers to work on writing a lot of low-level infrastructure code that won't create visible value for users. It also forces Nokia to maintain two separate code bases, which will chew up even more engineers.

All of that investment could have gone into crafting some great solutions, the things that are the only way to pull customers away from Apple and RIM. At a minimum, it's a terrible shame that Nokia spent so much time and money on an OS that couldn't take it into the future.

(By the way, this focus on the OS doesn't apply only to Nokia. I hear a lot of buzz from operators and handset companies who believe that if they just pick the right OS they'll automatically end up with great smartphones. Android is the latest white knight for most of them, but of course Nokia's not going to depend on a technology from Google.)

There's an old joke in the tech industry about rearranging deck chairs on the Titanic. I don't think that applies to Nokia because they haven't hit an iceberg by any means. But I do have a mental picture of a sweet old lady who spends all her time every day cleaning the bathroom while the food is spoiling in the refrigerator.

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