Nokia opens Windows and Symbian falls out
Nokia’s announcement that Microsoft’s Windows Phone will be its primary smartphone platform represents a fundamental change in Nokia’s software strategy. This is the first time that Nokia has committed to use a software platform outside its control. While this move will clearly benefit both parties in the short term, it also raises questions around Nokia’s capacity to differentiate itself and Microsoft’s ability to attract wider industry support for Windows Phone in the longer term.
Short-term benefits for Nokia and Microsoft, but outlook uncertain
This is a bold decision by Nokia but absolutely the right one, both for itself and for Microsoft given the drastically changed landscape for smartphones in the past couple of years. There were few short-term options available to the company to help it get back on terms with Apple and especially the Android masses, which in 2011 look set to overtake Nokia in terms of smartphone shipments – a shift which will bring with it the full wrath of the investor community.
Nevertheless, it’s ironic that the sole purpose of Symbian was to stop Microsoft from replicating its domination of the PC market in handsets. Nokia now has the opportunity to cast itself in the role that Intel has taken in the Windows PC market as a mutually beneficial, symbiotic marriage between equals rather than as simply a box shifter.
Nokia stated that it also considered using the Android platform, but decided against it as the company felt it would risk giving too much of its control away to Google. Clearly Nokia therefore sees Microsoft as a more equal partner than Google; however, questions still remain over the balance of power in the relationship. There is a danger that Nokia could end up as merely a vehicle for Microsoft and its services, should it fail to differentiate from other Windows Phone 7 makers such as HTC, Samsung, and LG.
A much-needed boost for Windows Phone
For Microsoft this is nothing less than a coup and the boost its new Windows Phone 7 platform needed, which despite winning acclaim for its innovative design and user experience has so far failed to set the market alight in terms of sales.
It appears that Microsoft may allow some concessions on its current tight control of the Windows Phone platform, potentially enabling Nokia to customize the hardware and software of its handsets. However, if Microsoft does allow Nokia to in effect create a superset of Windows Phone devices, this would put other OEMs at a disadvantage and subsequently may scare them off the platform. All of the current Windows Phone hardware partners also have Android handsets and have made significant investments in the platform, and so a move like this could lead them to abandon the Microsoft platform in favor of Google’s.
Partnership ends Nokia’s software platform ambition
The biggest losers following this announcement will be Nokia’s other smartphone platforms, namely MeeGo, Symbian, and Qt. As its previous smartphone platform of choice, it’s quite clear that Nokia’s inability to bring MeeGo products to market in the near term forced the company to make this dramatic strategic shift and partner with Microsoft. While Nokia still plans to release a MeeGo device later in the year, its role has been replaced, making it likely that Nokia will keep it as an experimental project following in the footsteps of its predecessor Maemo.
While not as immediate, the partnership also signals the beginning of the end for Symbian in the company’s smartphone portfolio, with Nokia transitioning all of its smartphone devices to Windows Phone. While Nokia had already positioned the platform as its mid-tier smartphone solution, sitting below MeeGo at the top end, Nokia has now made it clear that it will work closely with Microsoft to push its Windows Phone devices into the lower-tier smartphone market. This will have a direct impact on Symbian’s market, and while Nokia still plans to sell 150 million handset running Symbian in the future, it is likely the platform will be phased out entirely in the next two to three years. Qt is likely to suffer the same fate. While not a platform per se, the cross-platform application framework was central to Nokia’s software strategy, as it enabled developers to easily write for both Symbian and MeeGo. With MeeGo now clearly taken out of the running and with no plans to support Qt on Windows Phone, it has essentially been relegated to a development environment for Symbian.
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