With the disappearance of Symbian-Guru and World of Nokia in recent months, I’m sure a few readers of the various Nokia blogs out there are wondering who’s going to drop next. To be honest, I wouldn’t be surprised if a few more do go before too long. Nokia have made announcements that excited everyone, and then took a long time to actually deliver results, which invariably let everyone down for one reason or another. The Nokia N96 and the N97 were technically pretty decent phones, but poor implementation and support left most of us feeling a little disappointed while Apple and Google were receiving praise from all corners for the high standards of experiences and innovations their respective mobile offerings brought.
The N900 is perhaps one of the greatest achievements to come out of Nokia – great hardware, a (relatively) stable OS filled with eye candy, functionality and hackability. But Nokia’s support for the device let them down. I was impressed to see massive advertisements in the London Underground for the device, and hoped it would be a sign that Nokia were going to follow through with the device. What we got instead was a series of delayed firmware updates, disappointing third party support (except for community developers – fantastic efforts there, and Nokia at least gets points for enabling them, even if it was just through technologies inherited from previous Maemo devices), and a feeling of abandonment as the device gets left behind on the road to MeeGo.
There’s no denying that Nokia are still the biggest company out there as far as mobile phones go, globally at least. They push out so many low to mid-range phones (including Symbian devices) in Europe and other nations far from the US that in terms of sheer volume, there’s not really any competition. Nokia clearly make a lot of money, and don’t really have a great deal to fear when it comes to competition pushing them out of the market on this scale.
So, how did we get here, and what comes next? Read on for my rants, thoughts and opinions…
When the smartphone revolution first started over here in the UK, the US wasn’t really on the map in terms of what the networks over there could offer. They could handle phone calls, and text messaging was beginning to take off, while Nokia was busy pushing out devices that could view full web pages quite happily. As a result, the market developed differently over there, and Nokia didn’t really seem to do much about it. It’s easy to ignore a continent of 300 million people when it’s separated from you by thousands of miles of water, isn’t it?
Well, Nokia didn’t ignore it. They pushed a few devices out to a few carriers, and sort of tested the waters. They sold some devices, made some money, but perhaps it didn’t really make much difference to their overall profits compared to their growth closer to home. While I don’t pretend to be a market expert, it seems to me that they just didn’t change this approach, and when competition arrived with the iPhone and Android devices, they just let it carry on. They knew their hardware was technically superior, and their devices were (and still are in some instances) offering features that others lagged behind with. What was the worst that could happen?
Nokia didn’t bank on the experience users would have with the new devices and their innovative user interfaces. They didn’t bank on new approaches to application stores. They certainly didn’t expect the differences that companies doing some massive marketing could make a difference. Apple had managed to claw out a chunk of Microsoft’s market despite all odds being against them – I’m of the opinion they perhaps should have seen something coming.
And then, all too quickly after Apple and Google jumped into the market in the US at their respective times, quickly grabbing themselves huge audiences (often including people who would never previously have bought a phone), they did the same thing as Nokia and decided to test the water across the Atlantic. However, they did more than this – more than Nokia has ever done in the US – and they continued their massive marketing and really pushed into Europe. And they started to achieve results, eating into Nokia’s market share.
Now, I don’t think Nokia are in any position to be losing just yet – they’ve certainly held their global lead for long enough that there’s still a lot of catching up to do, but we finally get round to the question I had originally planned to ask at the very start of this blog post: Exactly what should Nokia do next?
There’s a few things they need to do, especially given the disappointment they’ve created amongst their customers in recent years:
- Prove they really can innovate. Symbian is great under the hood for stability, and great on the surface for familiarity, but the user experience is lagging, and developer support is getting worse relative to the competition. Whether with Symbian, MeeGo or whatever, Nokia needs to show it can get back ahead of the game, rather than just catching up.
- Meet expectations! If they are going to raise the bar at Nokia World, for instance, they need to actually carry through. If you can’t do it, don’t promise it. The N900 seemed like it was going to do well here, but the support has let it down.
- “Announce. Market! Release.” This is a basic one. But Nokia’s current system is more like “Announce. Market a little. Wait. Market a little more. Wait. Wait. Wait. Delay release. Wait. Market maybe some more. Release.” By the end of the process, most of the excitement is gone, competition may have overtaken the original hype (if there was any), and we are often let down by whatever is delivered. After we hear about devices, we want to make sure everyone hears how great they are, and then we want to get our hands on them before they’re out of date.
- Follow up with great, well-informed support. A few random firmware updates are nice, but different devices seem to get different support, and it seems to be a bit random when and where things turn up. If a firmware update is coming, Nokia would do well to give us an idea in advance, and to declare an official end-of-life for devices that aren’t going to get any more. It feels a bit like there’s a team in Nokia that develop and push out updates based on their mood, rather than what needs it. It’s great that Nokia engage in research with their users and customers to ask them what random things before they make a device, but they don’t do so well at talking to people once they’ve already bought something.
As a side comment to the last point, when Apple announced that they were going to charge iPod touch users to update their OS once upon a time, there was some outcry to which some of Nokia community responded: “It’s normal for a device to get a few updates, but not a full OS upgrade. Why are you complaining?” As I think about it, however, I wonder whether Nokia need to look at this and consider whether or not they started off with the wrong model, and perhaps they should be looking to push out more major OS updates to more devices. Just a thought…
Ultimately though, Nokia have the choice of three very obvious routes to go down now:
- Carry on, business as normal. It’s worked for the last decade. Why stop?
Sure enough, if Nokia don’t change a thing, they will continue to make money, the fanboys will continue to support them, and so on. But they will lose market share to competitors, and they will lose a lot of customers, from the average-Joe on the street up to dedicated fans.
- Play catch up and borrow from the successes of competitors.
We can already see a bit of this in the MeeGo handset UX, and in Symbian^3, but there’s a long way to go, and Nokia’s pace of development is very much iterative, focussing on evolution rather than revolution. If Nokia want to catch up, they need to take some massive steps soon. Once they’re on a level playing field with everyone else, they can start to innovate again. I’ll stand by my belief that Google and Apple’s mobile offerings are possibly the best thing that could have happened for Nokia if they go down this route – they showed us what could be done with the user experience, and now that they’re catching up with the hardware and feature sets, Nokia need to pay attention.
- Come up with something completely new
There are some smart guys over at Nokia, often working a few layers too deep to effect any major changes. Despite the current economic climate, Nokia does have the resource to find more smart guys, as shown by their random acquiring of small companies over the last few years. They need to get it all together, and then maybe – just maybe – they’ll be able to create a user experience across a few devices that is unlike anything we’ve seen before. The sceptical may say this can’t be done, that Apple have set the standard too high. However, the fact is that Apple already did this once, and Nokia have been in the game a lot longer than they have. If anyone has the potential and the resources to ask their audience, and find a new way to do things, it’s Nokia.
So, to summarise, there are interesting times ahead, and Nokia – whether it realises it or not – is at a point where they are likely going to slowly sink to the bottom, or start frantically swimming back to the top. The N8 probably isn’t the answer, no matter how shiny it promises to be. That said, Nokia have been a little clever in how they’ve refined the naming to suggest there are going to be less devices with more focus, only to follow-up with ‘variations’ on devices with slightly different names. Perhaps this is a sign that they are consolidating resources. Maybe the various N8 devices will all run the same firmwares, with updates at the same time, with only small modifications for different hardware at a much lower level in the OS? The N9 might be the answer, but for it to have much impact it needs to arrive tomorrow, rather than having to wait for something concrete to come out of MeeGo in October.
I look forward to what happens at Nokia World this September, even though its unlikely I’ll be there. At the very least, I hope they announce that Nokia World 2011 will happen somewhere over in the US – that really would be a bold move, and would probably have a surprisingly positive impact. Still, time will tell…