Nokia and Apple

Nokia reminds me a lot of Apple in the pre-Job days. 

It doesn’t have the loss-making, inept manufacturing, but everything else is there. The OS strategy is in chaos, the product lineup is bloated and confusing and the internal politics are out of control. Hardware teams and software teams do whatever they want with no reference to each other and no-one has any idea what OS will be on what device, what OS will come next, what device to buy or what internal fiefdom they should be dealing with. 

Meanwhile both companies struggled to get past a sense of ‘but we invented that!’. Apple invented (sort of) the GUI, while Nokia invented the idea of a consumer-friendly, easy to use mobile phone, yet both watched helplessly as newer upstarts zoomed past them. Both the Apple OS and the Nokia OS (more Series 40 than Series 60, admittedly) began as industry-leading products with great UX, both had far too much bolted onto them and both eventually collapsed under their own weight. Both went through a long painful period of confusion as first one then another future path was picked up and then dropped, and both went through and extended period of denial as they pretended to themselves that the success of Microsoft/Apple was due to something other than the fact that they had BETTER PRODUCTS. 

Of course, Apple achieved salvation by buying NeXT, which both reset the OS strategy and brought back Steve Jobs, the only man to create a billion-dollar company three times (Apple v1, Pixar and Apple v2). A lot of the comment around the new Nokia CEO centres on the fact that he clearly isn’t the same kind of product visionary. Does it matter?

Well, Nokia has lots of problems that don’t feature on Techcrunch. It has a massive business selling phones for $10 in emerging markets that is now under attack from cheap Chinese manufacturers using MediaTek chipsets. It has a solid mid-range business in phones running Series 40 that is about to get kicked in the teeth by Android (and the iPhone Nano?). And it has a high-end business in ruins. 

But running across all that is a deeply dysfunctional company that is incapable of executing - even if you agree with Nokia’s strategies and actually like the handsets they announce, the company doesn’t deliver them. The N97, released 2 years ago as ‘the answer’ to the iPhone, didn’t have a reasonably bug-free firmware for more than a year after launch. The N900, this year’s iPhone killer, didn’t support paid downloads on the Ovi Store for months after launch, and still doesn’t have many of Nokia’s flagship features. Any given Nokia handset has dozens of different firmware variants floating around, all with slightly different capabilities and all needing individual testing by developers. 

This shows up in little things too: the high-profile flagship retail presence was supposed to sell the Nokia content experience, but the handsets on display had no preloaded content, no SIM cards and no working Wifi, so there was no experience to see. Who approved that? Who stood in a store painted black and lit in purple neon and said ‘yes, this is the way to sell to women’?

So Nokia needs someone who can solve a corporate culture that looks at broken products and says ‘who cares, ship it’. It needs to reset the OS (Android? Windows Phone? Who knows). It also needs to fire dozens of failed senior managers. So far, so obvious. But I think there’s another, less obvious problem. 

Apple’s greatest strategic advantage in mobile is that it only sells one phone. This means it can go to mobile operators with a ‘take it or leave’ it proposition - Apple can ignore operator demands for customisation. This protects Apple’s user experience and makes life far easier for developers. If you’re happy with 5% of the market, and aim for 10%, one handset is fine. But Nokia sells 400m phones a year, at every price from $10 to $600. It has to have lots of phones on the market - not 50 (apparently the target for 2011) but several dozen. This is exactly the same problem Android is starting to have. If there are a dozen inter-changable handsets on the market then operators can demand that you remove that free GPS and pre-load their paid GPS instead - or preload Bing. 

In other words, the very fact that Nokia (and by extension Android) is putting more than one device on the market makes it impossible to hold the line against mobile operators in the way that Apple can and does. That makes it much harder to match the Apple experience, no matter how good your strategy, OS and execution are.