“Why Nokia Failed – 2,000 man years on UIs that didn’t work”

| March 11, 2011 | 45 Replies

Zane emailed us a very thorough article from The Register which described the necrotic core at Nokia. It reads to me that through mismanagement, failures were leading to a death of Nokia from the inside.

This will surely anger Symbian fans. I’m sure what ever Nokia does, media will perceive it as an awful thing. Nokia on Symbian? “Oh that’s awful, they should get rid of it”. Nokia not on Symbian “Oh that’s awful, why did they get rid of it”.

It’s a 3 page special.


Some selective reading:

The Wastage!

  • Wasted 2,000 man years’ on UIs that didn’t work
  • 15 years of investment, ensuring Nokia’s dependency written of by Elop and co because in his opinion it was not enough.
  • “But why? Nokia had (and still has) one proven and successful smartphone platform, and had spent years bringing another one to maturity. It had, belatedly, unified both under one API for developers. Yet Elop judged that neither of these two high-end platforms would ever gain the developer support they would need to stay competitive.”
  • “With its mature and well-debugged phone stacks, it is better for phone calls than any other smartphone: it drops fewer calls, the calls sound better, and it uses the antenna better.”
  • “Symbian’s power consumption and performance on comparable hardware are also best of class, despite the baroque middleware added over the years by Nokia.”
  • But Nokia’s phones considered uncompetitive BECAUSE OF THE UI which Nokia completely FAILED TO ADDRESS.
  • UX Matters. A well designed UX is “consistent, forgiving and rewarding”. Nokia’s user experience was “inconsistent, unforgiving and hostile”. Nokia’s designers focused precision on the wrong detail. We don’t need The Register telling us this. For years we have said that Symbian is THE BEST OS. The problem is not in the operating system. It’s in the user interface which dominantly CONTROLS the whole user’s experience of the phone. To be competitive, to be a worthy competitor you must be able to adapt to the new climate, to the new selection pressures. Early on it was on a simple, straight forward, modern looking UI. With over 6000 people supposedly working on Symbian/Maemo/MeeGo and billions spent yearly, they could not accomplish this. It gets worse when you continue to read the article.

Orlowski summarises this as:

…if Nokia had a UI, it would not have had to lose its independence. And as Nokia gave up its independence, Europe lost its last global technology platform. US and Japanese companies now dictate the market.

What on earth happened?

The article has many insights from Mark Wilcox who had worked at the Symbian Foundation and had written books on Symbian. This reads as one train wreck of a disaster as aptly put, belongs in a techy disaster movie.

  • Incredible software mismanagement.
  • Nokia pursuing simultaneously two dead ends, until the purchase of trolltech (Qt) that united both platforms.
  • Not everyone as on board QML. Symbian veterans REFUSED to use QML using a framework called hitchcock. Linux team devicsed Gtk. “Symbian starwals regrouped and devised the Symbian widget library, Orbit”.
  • Remember Orbit? Symbian^4 and the Qt Based Orbit UI? Away with old Avkon UI, now pushing for new “modern” Qt UI meaning a break from old apps (not that important, any Qt apps would still work). Destined for 2010 release, polishing around 2011. Was not compatible on S^3 handsets. Now S^3 will get Qt UI updates. But at a price of possibly no long term future of Symbian.
  • “Orbit absorbed huge resources within the Nokia organisation, but was a mess from the start…Orbit wasn’t really portable beyond Symbian. Management didn’t notice”
  • Linux team developed Direct UI.
  • “This kind of internal competition was encouraged within Nokia” apparently in the hopes it would avoid bureaucracy
  • Due to inadequate management, Nokia’s teams made TWO INCOMPATIBLE UI APIs. Nokia making the same fragmentation mistakes of 2004.
  • Nokia Finally got a grown up in charge. Sun’s Rich Green became Chief Technology Officer. (That’s why he sported iPhone – he wasn’t a long standing Nokia dude).
  • Green canned Orbit. He also canned Direct UI.  Those awesome leaked MeeGo UI? Yeah, that’s the one that was canned.
  • “while all this pointless competition and in-fighting was going on, nobody had set about modernising the Symbian UI. Nokia’s product designers were left with a UX that was still almost as bad as its predecessor.”

Symbian^3 – the slowest quick fix.

  • Nokia wanted to remove worst UI niggles from Symbian for next release, s^3. It was NOT meant to be the major UI change we were all waiting for. A service station stop until we reached our destination.
  • Symbian^3 became delayed as more features were added. Wilcox calls it “the slowest ‘quick fix’ in history”.
  • This is where it seems to get so much worse…

“Ironically, by the time Elop was unveiled as new CEO in September, Nokia finally had its developer story sorted out. At least on PowerPoint, if not in practice, with QML as a quick and easy way of writing applications that really do run on both Symbian and Linux, and a slick environment called Qt Quick.”

  • All platforms are burning. Symbian has a shelf life of 150million handsets more. MeeGo is merely a research project. However in another article from Reuters, it doesn’t seem like Symbian’s death may not have such a specific time scale: Cheers aris for the tip

“We will of course utilise the long tail of Symbian as long as it gives us a profitable margin” – Nokia Chief Financial Officer Timo

  • “management was ultimately to blame for allowing the infighting to continue for so long.”

Here’s another developer’s insights on the infighting:

“Nokia’s culture was steeped in hardware. It thought software happens magically, or in a software factory, or something like that. If all Nokia’s upper managers are like that, then it is obvious that they had no clue about the implications of different UI APIs. They should have been fired for gross incompetence.

But WHO Would fire them? Someone else EQUALLY INCOMPETENT to even notice their underlings burning the company from the inside?

This is what many Nokia/Symbian fans felt on Feb 11. Even Nokia/Symbian hating engadget harped on that Symbian was fundamentally good – it just needed a UI update that was competitive.

With both Linux and Symbian platforms, 80 per cent of the code did not need to change to make Nokia competitive once again. With Symbian, the code had been written over many thousands of man-years, and only the top 20 per cent (at most) needed to be refreshed. Yet Nokia couldn’t deliver this. For want of a nail, the kingdom was lost

There are other factors involved not mentioned.

Some more questions before I dash off to lectures again:

Could Nokia really have moved Symbian fast enough? IS a new UI enough? Was MeeGo ever ready to compete? Did it really require Microsoft’s host of ‘ecosystem’ building products to survive? How important is it that Nokia remain independent?

Was there ever a good reason for officially (and effectively) dropping Symbian and MeeGo? (This is NOT answered properly from Nokia’s side. We have analysts trying to understand it, but nothing concrete from Nokia that would may be inform unsettled Symbian fans)

Did Elop choose Windows Phone to save Nokia…or Microsoft?


Category: Maemo, MeeGo, Nokia, Rant, Symbian, Windows Phone

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Hey, thanks for reading my post. My name is Jay and I'm a medical student at the University of Manchester. When I can, I blog here at and tweet now and again @jaymontano. We also have a twitter and facebook accounts @mynokiablog and Check out the tips, guides and rules for commenting >>click<< Contact us at tips(@) or email me directly on jay[at]