Sunday, January 30, 2011

The next Nokia OS: Android or Windows?

I have read rumors that Nokia will have a special announcement on February 11th. Many are convinced it will be a shift away from the current strategy on operating systems.

Let me revisit what they have now:
- Symbian, a semi-open source OSS, their stronghold in the smart-enough-phones
- MeeGo, a fully open source OSS, now managed by the Linux Foundation, which is a merge of Maemo (formerly Nokia) and Moblin (created by Intel). In theory, this is Nokia's play in the touch phones or Internet phones (the smartphones that are so smart to have a good browser), including tablets

Everyone will tell you that a dual-OSS strategy is a lack of focus. It is already difficult to have one, having two is impossible. Too much effort, too many resources, too many things overlapping (hint for Google: you should pick between Android and Chrome OS, choose the former ;-)

Now, if you were Nokia, would you pick Symbian for the future? Probably no, it is an old OS, it has a very long history and a lot of code that is hard to manage: it is time to let it go, albeit slowly. This is exactly what Nokia has been doing lately.

What about MeeGo? It is a pretty good OS. I have tested only the laptop version, so I cannot fully comment on it. But Maemo was very good as well, so - if you combine that with the Linux Foundation management - I have very few doubts it is going to be a great OS.

Therefore, one would assume that Symbian for the low-end (and dying) and MeeGo for the high-end (and growing) is the way to go. Nokia's strategy makes a lot of sense.

Unfortunately, there is a little problem: a phone today is appealing if it comes with developers. And developers go where there are a lot of phones. There are no MeeGo phones, therefore there are no Meego developers.

The big question is: will there ever be a lot of MeeGo developers? Hard to say, the ship has sailed a long time ago. Developers today build for iPhone first, then Android. If they have a good reason (i.e. Microsoft paying) they build for Windows Phone 7. If they are in the enterprise, maybe they look at BlackBerry. If they want to support the existing bunch of devices, they suffer and go with Symbian as well. Hard to think they will pick yet-another-OS...

Will developers go for MeeGo? Honestly, it is hard to be optimistic. If this is the conclusion Nokia is coming to, then there is just one alternative, unimaginable until a year ago: that Nokia will start building phones with a third party OS, like any other device manufacturer excluding Apple.

It makes sense to me. They do not have to bet the entire house on one OS, they can keep Symbian going and maybe even find a place for MeeGo (although having three OSs would sound insane at best).

Bottom line: they still have a super-powerful brand and, with a popular OS with lots of developers, they could keep selling like crazy.

Options? Probably just two: Android or Windows Phone 7.

Naturally, I would go Android. It is open source, it is winning (ehm, are the two related?), there is room for differentiation. Granted, Google is not the easier partner to work with and Nokia will probably not be considered "special" by them. But it is a sure bet. Nokia with Android will sell a lot. It is a killer combination.

However, Microsoft needs Nokia more than Google does. And the new Nokia CEO, Stephen Elop, is a former Microsoft. The two companies have existing relationships (remember the Nokia notebook, built on Windows 7?). It is a no-brainer from the corporate perspective. Still, Windows Phone 7 is not a winner (yet) and it needs to attract developers (a lot). Going with Microsoft is a bigger risk, but Nokia will be treated as "special" for sure (although they will not have room to customize the UI on the phone, which is a biggie). In any case, it must be an attractive proposition, because Microsoft will offer the moon.

Windows Phone 7 needs developers and, possibly, having Nokia behind it will attract them. If that happens, we'll have a third OS with equal chances to Android and iOS. Having just two in the fight would be better, but variety is the spice of life, after all ;-)

I vote Android, but I bet Nokia will go with Microsoft (assuming the rumor is right, of course).