Nokia has published the Q4 2010 results a few days ago showing a big drop in profits but also an increase in sales. 5 millions Symbian^3 devices were sold beating the numbers of all Windows Phone 7 devices combined but hings are getting tough for Nokia and Symbian as the market gets more and more competitive from the rest of the platforms. We are going to analyse the current state of the mobile market and what we should expect from Nokia, Symbian and MeeGo as well as what alternative ways are available for Nokia taking in mind all the hard facts.

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Table of Contents

  1. Mobile Today
    1. The OS is irrelevant
    2. Android the Trojan Horse
    3. iOS
    4. Windows Phone 7
    5. Bada
    6. Blackberry
    7. Symbian
    8. Maemo
  2. What the future holds
    1. Symbian
    2. Software Updates (PR 1.1/2.0/3.0)
    3. Hildon
    4. MeeGo
    5. One platform to rule them all
  3. Nokia's critical situation
    1. One way path
    2. Nokia's Future
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Mobile Today

The OS is irrelevant.

The present situation in the mobile scene is trully chaotic. Plenty of Operating Systems and, according to the media, great wars raging between them. But most media sources miss the whole point. Mobile phones and even smartphones are not like computers 20-30 years ago. The OS powering a device doesn't matter unless you are a geek. What really matters for the end user are the services provided by the phone, smartphone or not. We have seen it in the past even with Symbian. On Sony-Ericsson's and Samsung's hands it was poor, really poor. Nokia made one step further to provide real services intergated with their phones like Ovi Maps, Ovi store, Ovi music, Ovi mail etc. Although not perfect, they were a great companion for Nokia's Symbian phones, and a great drawback for Maemo missing all these services. No matter how great piece of hardware the N900 was, it really fell low, with Ovi maps having only basic functionality and Ovi store being...empty. But no matter the services there is always the hidden part of the Operating System. Yes the OS is critical but it's nothing more than another parameter in the equation for a successful platform, a hidden parameter that most end users won't even notice. And right now we have 9 platforms: Android, iOS, Windows Phone 7, Symbian, MeeGo, WebOS, Bada, Blackberry and Windows Mobile. With Windows Mobile almost dead due to Windows Phone 7 release and WebOS becoming HP's embeded sollution only for its tablets, printers, scanners, etc the list shrinks a little but not enough! So lets take a look on todays platforms...

Android, Google's Trojan Horse

Google's decision to enter the mobile market with an Open Source Operating System didn't make sense at first. There were no visible profits from that move especially when we consider that Google is not a hardware manufacturer and the few devices made by them were actually concepts and not really profitable. But a more in depth analysis of Android really shows Google's targets behind their tactics. Android is not fully open. It does not only use the linux kernel in a highly modified and incompatible way but the OS does not at all resembles a Linux distribution. On top of that, its development is highly controlled by Google and so there is no real community behind it to drive the evolution of the OS. Development is driven in ways to promote Google's services. Hardware manufacturers who choose Android have the freedom of intergrating their own services but maintaining them is really hard. Future modifications and changes in the core of the OS are unknown and can easily break compatibility with the work of Sony-Ericsson, HTC, Motorolla, etc making the built-in Google's services the easy sollution to pick. It's clear that Google is trying to become the Microsoft of Mobile phones. With Android being the platform of choice for hardware manufacturers they only change parts of the UI to differentiate their products and use almost all their resources to maintain those changes in later versions of Android. But this is a risky game for most hardware manufacturers as the differentation between their products shrinks alot and with more smaller companies entering the smartphone market and picked by operators for rebranding, we will have a really huge fragmentation of the market. We expect Android to be the number one Operating system in the next couple of years but expect huge changes in the battlefield.

iOS

Apple's case is the most interesting. It was Apple that actually made the term "Smartphone" famous in the US and maybe for some newcomers to the rest of the world. But Apple also devided the world as the definition came in their own terms and not what the rest of the world already knew about what a smartphone really is. It brought a great UI and UX but it lacked behind the rest of the platforms featurewise. Even after 3 years the iOS still lacks important features like true-multitasking and app distribution freedom but that jail Apple created let them have full control not only for their app store and revenues but also full quality control! It seems the golden years of iOS are close to an end (at least in the phone market because the tablet market is owned right now by Apple) and iPhone slowly becomes a niche market due to the one sollution for all policy and the high prices of Apple's products, but that doesn't mean iPhone won't sell good and most importantly keep providing great revenues to Apple. iPhone will always be there for a specific target group but the philosophy behind the OS as well as its nature being only for Apple products won't let it dominate the market just like Macs never dominated the pc market but also never extinct

Windows Phone 7

Evolution or failure? The new mobile OS from Microsoft brought all the things missing from Windows Mobile, a nice UI and a great UX, but also killed a few other basic features. Windows Phone 7 is the alternative iPhone device, another jail for many people, but that might change in the future. Microsoft wanted to start from the begining with something fresh to compete and at the same time fully control through strick requirements for hardware manufacturers to avoid fragmentation and a closed ecosystem, just like Apple did with iPhone. Unfortunately the early results from sales are not so promising but from past experience with Microsoft we shouldn't really deny a change in the near future. It's still really early to draw a conclusion about the future of this OS.

Bada

Samsung's black horse is not just the new kid on the block. Actually its not at all new. Bada is Samsung's proprietary OS that was powering their feature phones. Samsung made a step forward evolving the OS into a true smartphone platform. And that platform is irrelevant from the core OS. The first incarnation of Bada uses a hybrid kernel of older samsung's feature phones and plenty open code from FreeBSD, NetBSD and OpenBSD while missing some critical features like Multi-tasking but things are going to change in the future with Bada moving to Linux. According to Samsung, Bada is not an OS but a platform just like MOAP (Mobile Oriented Applications Platform) in Japan. Just like Windows Phone 7 and iOS, it's a proprietary platform fully controled by Samsung so the only 3rd party apps that can be installed are through Samsung's store. We don't consider it a threat to the other OSs but surely it will get some percentage of the smartphone pie in the near future, a percentage of converted feature phnes to smartphones

Blackberry

RIM's proprietary OS is going to change radically in the near future. It is one of the most stable forces in the mobile market thanks to its high business profile. RIM made some steps to widen blackberrys target group without success. We shouldn't consider them a lesser threat as Steve Jobs wants us to believe as they have a good strategy and they just entered the tablet market for a face to face competition with Apple. Right now the Blackberry OS has the same problem with Symbian, an unimpressive User Interface but the problems go deeper with lack of true multilingual support and true internet service intergration (other than email that actually has one of the best implementations). But things will change thanks to the QNX OS acquisition. We just have to wait.

Symbian

Tough times ahead for the once king OS of smartphones, really tough. But Symbian is far from dead and it will remain on the top spots for the next few years, maybe bellow Android. The problem with Symbian was never it's core. Symbian is actually the most advanced and resource efficient Open Source Operating System right now. The problem from the begining when Epoc trasnformed into Symbian was its UI. There was not one UI but multiple choices for different needs. With touch becoming a comodity and Series 60, a non touch UI, becoming the default one when the OS became Open Source, the problems were more obvious. Things got even worse when Samsung and Sony-Ericsson left the building letting only Nokia behind Symbian. But Nokia was also the only one who actually invested the most in the OS. The only one who built many platforms around Symbian OS and the one who bought it in the end and Open Sourced it. Nokia is going to radically change the platform in the near future and these changes will affect today's Symbian^3 devices. Read further for more info on Symbian's future.

Maemo

Maemo was never meant to be just a tablet platform. Nokia made the first step back in 2005 with Linux and the platform reached its final destination with the N900 in a five step plan. Nokia was actually slowly creating a new market with devices that had the power of personal computers with a real Linux distribution and the minimum size the technology could offer at times. The final step was the fusion with Intel's Moblin that created MeeGo and so the OS became more universal. That actually made many people believe that this was the end of Maemo but it was nothing more than a rename of the brand as the latest Maemo 6 in now named as MeeGo/Harmattan and the first device with it (expected to be Nokia's N9) will be the real successor to the N900 but the OS will slowly convert to MeeGo's Core on future versions. We just have to see how the new ecosystem will evolve in the near future and we don't have any devices yet other than a few tablets! MeeGo's future is unknown, but it is for sure the most powerfull and promising OS.

What the Future holds

Symbian

Nokia took full control of the OS and they are still in the process of moving all the bits and pieces from the Symbian Foundation to them as well as finding the most efficient way of providing the source code in the same open if not better way the Symbian Foundation did. They killed Symbian^4 in favor of incremental updates similar to Android and iOS to accelerate the updating process and also make them available as soon as possible to their current customers and Symbian^3 device owners. S60 version 3 and 5 devices are really close to their end of life and will only receive minor updates with bug fixes, optimisations and updated apps. We will have a look on what we can expect from the forthcoming Symbian^3 updates:

PR 1.1/2.0/3.0

The very first update will be a minor one having mainly bug fixes and speed optimisations.

The PR1.1 was released for beta testing but was withdrawn shortly after its release for further internal testing with a great posibility that it will be skiped and all the changes will come together on PR2.0 which is expected to be released in the next couple of months.

The PR2.0 will bring some productivity changes including split-screen text entry, a portrait QWERTY keyboard, integrated Swype input, a new Qt browser that will follow today's standards on internet browsing and plenty camera improvements.

There will be another update compatible with today's smartphones after the summer that will bring a totally new User Interface. More speculations on the User Interface below.

After these updates we also expect a brand new wave of Symbian devices sporting dual core CPUs and cameras with optical zoom.

Hildon

Before going further we should first take a look back in time. As we said above the biggest problem with Symbian was its legacy user interface that was not actually designed for touch devices. If we go back to the Epoc years, the User Interface used by Psion devices (the Psion Eikon GUI) was trashed until Nokia decided to ressurect it on 7700 and 7710, Nokia's first Symbian touch devices. The Symbian Series 90 Platform powering these devices had its roots at Epoc's original UI (as used on Psion's Series 5, Series 5mx, Revo, netPad, Series 7 and netBook machines). The UI was really great for its time from a business point of view. Unfortunately 7710 failed as a product and Nokia discontinued the Series 90. But the fundamental ideas behind this GUI moved on another project by Nokia in 2005, the internet tablet and so the Epoc UI was born again as Hildon on another OS totally new, Linux Based, named later Maemo. Since then Hildon has evolved greatly becoming a really revolutionary GUI but it lost its roots. The development path followed by Nokia was meant for tablets and not smartphones and so when N900 was released although really powerful and revolutionary, it was a device for a really small target group. Nokia then made the next move into merging Maemo with Intel's Moblin and MeeGo was born but that also gave the impression that Maemo was dead.





MeeGo

Nokia's and Intel's efforts to join forces and create a universal OS gave birth to MeeGo. The OS is trully Open with the Linux Foundation having control of the development. But it's not ready yet for the consumer smartphone market! There is only one device powered by MeeGo that has been released, the WeTab tablet, and we are expecting more to come in the near future. Most tablets will use Intel Atom chipset solutions but we may see some ARM based tablets too. Nokia has special plans for it as it will be the future OS of choice for high end smartphones and mobile computers like the N900. Nokia also has a middle step before releasing a true MeeGo device and that's MeeGo/Harmatten previously known as Maemo 6. The User Interface will be redesigned without losing its roots to Maemo and also will move to Qt just like Symbian which is the hint to...

One platform to rule them all

With Hildon developed from the start and ported in Qt, Nokia is actually developing one User Interface for 2 different Operating Systems. The brand new UI that is expected on PR3 will at least have many similarities with N9's MeeGo/Harmattan UI if it won't be a clone of it. That way Nokia will reduce development duration for the rest of the core applications as both Operating Systems will use the same Graphical tools for developing apps and the same fundamental architecture. Qt being the only development framework for both will also boost 3rd party application ports between those two Operating Systems with minimal effort. This is not something new. We have seen the same strategy from NTT Docomo for its MOAP platform running on both Symbian and Linux that really make them manage it easier but unfortunately this platform is closed so things remain hard for Nokia in maintaining the quality but easier than before with two rorally different platforms. Samsung is also heading on a similar strategy with Bada. The question is when will it be ready and what will the differences be between the two platforms.

Nokia's critical situation

Nokia made many mistakes. And those mistakes cost not only to the company but also to the Symbian OS. Some of them are not even connected with the Symbian platform as most might thing. The iPhone really damaged Nokia not because it was taking a slice from the smartphone market but because it made Nokia to try and copy the iPhone. It caused an identity crisis not just to Nokia but to most Mobile Phone makers. But people didn't actually want another iPhone despite media constantly trying to find the ultimate iPhone killer in each new product. Most people still prefer phones without a touchscreen or at least a combination of touch and qwerty keyboard. They also prefer cleverly designed phones similar to the N95 with the dual sliding mechanism, the N93 that it had a great design for photography and multimedia and the Communicator series. But all were trushed in favor of products with only touch screen. Even worse the latest bunch of Nokia phones (N8,E7) won't have easily replaceable batteries just like the iPhone! The upcomming E7 doesn't even have a microSD port for extending memmory, just like the iPhone. These mistakes are in no way connected with the OS but demonstrate the inability of a Company to see the Market's needs. It's like listening to the bad guided criticism of the media instead of your own customers. It is even worse how the media still insist that the problem is the OS when the only problem Symbian had was the inappropriate UI that gets better through time. But most of the US media still try to make people believe that the only salvation for Nokia is jumping into the Android or Windows Phone 7 bandwagon and to most extend they succeed at least in the United States

One way path

When having the biggest percentage of smartphones in the market you hardly give it to someone else. Making that step and going an alternative way, the way that was picked by all the other hardware manufacturers is like giving up for Nokia. It will be the ultimate identity change. But Nokia is not used into doing these kind of changes and want to have total control over their devices so the option of using another OS in their devices is not a feasible option. And the media still play with words when they want to create waves of enthusiasm to their readers and use the way they want whatever may be told by Nokia's CEO Stephen Elop. That's what happened once more when Stephen Elop made the anouncement about the Q4 results and what are the future plans. But Elop was clear on the main Nokia's principals:

  1. Deliver great products.
  2. Compete on an ecosystem to ecosystem basis.
  3. Take maximum advantage of Nokia's assets.
  4. Maintain sustainable differentiation.
  5. Believe that their strategy simultaneously increases our success in markets.
  6. Believe in successful execution of this strategy.
  7. Elegant in its simplicity strategy,
And the media picked the phrase "...we must build, capitalize and/or join a competitive ecosystem..." tottally ignoring the principals that are against the move to another competitive ecosystem. There is one small door to change their main OS in their strategy but that will only come when everything else fails. And this door seems to be far away as alot of investment is needed. So there is only one path for Nokia and that is their own path away from 3rd party Platforms.

Nokia's Future

Nokia is not Dead or Doomed, neither is going to bankrupt. But things are not good either. They are freefalling the last few months and if they don't change and find their own identity, an identity that was lost, the end won't be so good for them. But in order to go back to their old successes as Stephen Elop said: Nokia must change faster than the industry is changing. And for that to happen they have to find a way not only to win the customers but also the media who are against them and the Operators. We are waiting for 11th of February to have everything cleared about the specifics of Nokia's strategy.