Panic On The Streets Of Espoo

12 Feb 2011

All of the recent chatter on Twitter and blogs regarding the Nokia-Microsoft partnership has tempted me to offer up my own hostage to fortune. But first, a disclaimer: I have no inside information. This is all conjecture based on public sources. Also, these opinions, like all of those on this site, are entirely my own, and not those of my employer.

Now that’s out of the way, I’ll get straight to pontificating (I’m assuming you already know the background). Plenty has already been said about whether the deal is good or bad for Nokia (it seems fairly universally agreed that it’s good for Microsoft), but I want to write about the effects outside those companies; specifically, what it will do the the smartphone landscape.

In the short term, the answer is probably nothing. It’ll take Nokia some time to bring a Windows Phone 7 handset to market. However, it seems safe to assume that they will release one at some point. Slightly less safely, let’s also assume that they don’t screw up either the implementation or the launch, and it sees a reasonable degree of success. This is where it gets interesting.

My guess is that Microsoft will be looking to use Nokia as the main way of ensuring WP7 gains traction. I say this because all of their other OEMs are not committed to the platform in the same way, because they all also make Android handsets. Why would they cede the control they have over the Android platform for the relatively restrictive (not to mention more costly) Microsoft setup, when the former has all the momentum and volume? Nokia, on the other hand, have pretty comprehensively thrown their lot in with MS, and seem to have basically given up on their home-grown efforts. As such, they’ll be even keener for WP7 to succeed than Microsoft themselves, having essentially bet the entire company.

Now that Microsoft has a captive hardware manufacturer, does it still need any others? My guess would be no. It sounds like Nokia will be getting special access, and working closely with Microsoft on the future development of the platform. I predict that, before too long, Nokia will be the only manufacturer of WP7 hardware. It’s possible that Microsoft will simply dissolve the agreements with the others - it would be a shitty move, but the PlaysForSure debacle demonstrates that they have absolutely no compunction about cutting their partners loose if they think it’s to their advantage. More likely, though, is that they simply leave of their own accord. Certainly, if I were Samsung, or HTC, or LG, I wouldn’t be putting money into any future Windows phones having heard Friday’s announcement. The only one that I can see staying of their own accord is Dell, but only because they’ve been so firmly in bed with MS for so long that it probably doesn’t even occur to them that they can take off the leather cuffs and gimp mask.

I don’t think this prediction spells doom and gloom for Nokia or Microsoft. I think Windows Phone 7 will have a better chance of gaining noticeable market share if it’s more focussed, and if the software and hardware are developed in tandem. And, perhaps surprisingly for a long-time Mac and Linux user, I do want it to succeed. I don’t want it to gain the 95%+ share that Windows had on the desktop, but I don’t think there’s much risk of that. However, it is, from what I’ve heard, a well-designed, usable platform. More importantly, I think a market with four strong players (iOS, Android, WP7, and WebOS, which HP seem to be making a good job of at the moment) will be a lot healthier for both consumers and developers than the alternative, an iOS/Android duopoly.

To round off, I’d like to make an even more long-term prediction; eventually, Microsoft will end up buying Nokia to create an in-house mobile hardware division. This would be intensely unpopular in Finnland - hence the title of this post - but given that Nokia seem to be positioning themselves as mainly a manufacturer of WP7 handsets, there would seem to be little reason for them to remain a separate entity. The one wildcard in this the non-smartphone side of the business, but that is being so ruthlessly cannibalised by no-name Asian manufacturers that I would be surprised if there’s much mileage left there. Another possibility is a split - the smartphone business goes to MS, and Nokia is left with other phones, plus their less high-profile lines (set-top boxes, network infrastructure). The gutted Nokia would be a shadow of its former self.

It’s a shame to see Symbian, the best mobile OS for a long while, and Maemo/MeeGo, a promising alternative, go the way of the dodo, but the writing has been on the wall for a while now. Elop’s burning platform memo, melodramatic as it was, wasn’t too far off the mark. What remains to be seen is if jumping into the sea results in rescue, or merely a more drawn-out death.

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