After Nokia’s recent announcement that they’ll start using Microsoft’s Windows Phone platform as their primary smartphone OS soon, there’s been plenty of negative feedback from most of Nokia’s most rabid fans. I’ve been using an HTC HD7 since the announcement, to get a feel for the platform that Nokia has thrown its weight behind. I’ll be publishing more thoughts on Windows Phone 7 over the next few weeks, but after a couple of days with the system, I figured out why Stephen Elop decided to go this route.
It is going to be easier for Nokia and Microsoft to add features to Windows Phone 7 than it would be for Nokia to update and beautify the Symbian operating system.
Now, I understand that’s a hard pill for some of you to swallow, so let me explain.
Symbian Is Old
The Symbian platform is old – it was originally developed in the 1990s, ironically as a way for Nokia and other partners to avoid licensing Microsoft’s new Windows Mobile platform. The entire operating system, down to its core components, is over 10 years old, going on 15. That’s old from a software standpoint, and downright ancient from a mobile operating system perspective.
The problem with this, then, is that along the way, the operating system has been updated to support various new features – a webkit based browser, the ‘always-on’ connectivity, high-resolution cameras and displays, and other more modern smartphone features. These additions have been tacked onto the older core, and the result is a monstrous amount of code, some of it only barely hanging together by a thread. Sure, the homescreens and icons have been updated, but as even the most ardent Symbian fanboys can attest, it’s still pretty much the same when you dig down into the menus and layout and such.
This is also a concern for developers. Native Symbian applications are written in Symbian C++, which I’ve been told is a nightmare to learn and use. For the past 12 months or so, Nokia has been beating the QT drum, praising the platform as a ‘code once, deploy everywhere’ solution. However, only the latest versions of Symbian are able to take full advantage of the QT benefits, which is more evidence as to how hobbled together Symbian really is.
So, even though Symbian is incredibly feature-rich, it would basically require a 100% rewrite for it to be updated the way it needs to be in order to compete in today’s mobile smartphone market. Everyone knows this, and Nokia tried to do it, but failed.
Windows Phone Is New
Windows Phone, on the other hand, is brand spanking new. Microsoft completely started from scratch, dumping pretty much everything from its previous Windows Mobile platforms (similar to what Palm had to do in order to create WebOS). This means that the framework and core system is able to take advantage of today’s newer technology, and it looks absolutely beautiful while it does. This is a benefit that Windows Phone shares with Apple’s iOS, with both operating systems offering users a beautiful, aesthetically-pleasing experience with new, more modern features.
Unfortunately, because it is still technically at v1.0, the Windows Phone platform is not nearly as feature-complete as Symbian is. Glaring omissions include copy/paste, multitasking, a decent webkit-based browser, Internet tethering, and other modern niceties. This is similar to how both iOS and Android started out, and look how well they’ve developed over the past 2 years. Because the core systems do not contain any legacy code, these platforms are much more competitive and easier to update from a manufacturer’s standpoint.
So, Symbian lovers regard Windows Phone 7 as the most beautiful dumbphone operating system they’ve ever seen. They can’t begin to fathom how Nokia thinks this is a good idea, to replace the feature-rich Symbian platform with the borderline-dumbphone Windows Phone platform. They’re not looking at the big picture.
Nokia has spent the past 2-3 years and millions (perhaps billions) of dollars trying to make Symbian look and feel like a modern, competitive operating system, and it has repeatedly failed, miserably. The only real option would have been for Nokia to completely rewrite Symbian from the ground up, completely dumping the existing codebase. This would have wasted even more time and more dollars, neither of which are resources that the company can afford.
With Windows Phone, Nokia gets a platform that has already been rewritten from the ground up, and they’re getting in on it early enough that they will be able to help guide its future. While they have essentially become just another OEM, they still at least have a chance at helping influence the future of the platform, whereas with Android, they wouldn’t have had that opportunity. Windows Phone already has the baseline of modernization that Nokia needed Symbian to have. It has a very consistent (albeit limiting) user experience. It’s absolutely gorgeous, with little wasted space and a welcome absence of multi-layered menus and submenus.
Update: The Proof Is Here
Not but a few hours after I published this post, Steve Ballmer went on stage at Mobile World Congress 2011 to announce the upcoming updates for the Windows Phone platform. Due sometime in 2011 (admittedly a rather large window), the platform will gain copy/paste, multitasking, integration of Twitter into the system, and other performance-related fixes. Microsoft also demonstrated an upcoming Xbox Kinect integration that will use your phone to integrate to the gaming experience.
Windows Phone was launched exactly a year ago, at Mobile World Congress 2010, and already a year and a half or so later is getting some major system upgrades. As I noted in a comment response below, Nokia launched S60 5th Edition in October 2008 with the Nokia 5800 XpressMusic, and has been promising a major system overhaul ever since. Homescreen aside, if you put a 5800 XpressMusic next to the latest Nokia N8, you’ll see that the actual system UI has not changed much at all. It’s still a layered mess of menus and submenus, and there is still not a consistent experience in the user interface.
What About MeeGo?
Yes, I hear the three people in the back asking ‘What about MeeGo?‘ MeeGo would have presented a similar opportunity for Nokia – if they were able to do anything with it. MeeGo was announced over a year ago, and we still haven’t seen a device shipping with it. Nokia has demonstrated time and time again that while they have mastered hardware design, they’re complete novices when it comes to software. Windows Phone, on the other hand, is ready to ship now, and it shouldn’t take too long to build a hardware device that is capable of running the Windows Phone platform.
That said, I don’t think MeeGo is dead. On the contrary, Stephen Elop said to AllThingsD, “As they say in Finland, it is time to shoot ahead of the duck.” If you’ve never been duck hunting, this refers to the idea that if you want to hit a flying duck, you aim a short distance in front of the bird’s path. In doing so, you’re acknowledging that from the time it takes you to pull the trigger and the bullet to get to the duck, the bird is moving forward, not standing still. To me, this suggests that the Windows Phone deal is also being used to take some attention off MeeGo, to give the fledgling platform time to be built for tomorrow’s competition, and to remove much of the pressure to be product-ready today.
Execution Is Key
The key, as usual with Nokia, is going to be execution. If the company is able to start shipping devices with Windows Phone before the end of 2011, they’ll have a chance to make up several years of stagnation in their smartphone offerings. Keep in mind, also, that Windows Phone 7 is slated to get a rather impressive update in March 2011, adding copy/paste and some other performance-related improvements. It’s very possible that the platform could receive an update in the second half of this year to add multitasking capabilities, and a Nokia device launching in Q4 2011 should be able to take advantage of such an update.