Nokia’s Biggest Mistake

Published on Author Eli Fennell

In What Makes Android Revolutionary, Thom Holwerda writes,

“The iPhone is heralded as the most revolutionary mobile phone in human history, but the cold and harsh truth is that for all the cheering and punditry, the iPhone’s impact on the world is negligible. Sure, it had a huge impact on the smartphone market in rich countries – but it didn’t have such an impact on the world.  For all the bad jokes directed at the company during its trying times, Nokia is the technology company that truly changed the world. Nokia put a mobile phone within every person’s reach. Even people in some of the poorest places on earth were given the ability to communicate wirelessly, thanks to Nokia making the mobile phone affordable to everyone. Personally, I see this as one of the greatest achievements of the technology world, but sadly, it’s often overlooked because “ooh Apple has pinch-to-zoom!!!”

He’s right, of course, Nokia changed the world, leveling the playing field for millions of people who might otherwise have been denied access to the technology of the new century and all that it brings with it.  He’s also right that what Nokia did for cell phones, Android is doing for smartphones, tablets, and other mobile devices, making them affordable (if not free) and available.

I’ll admit that I’ve been one of the people making the aforementioned bad jokes about Nokia, but here’s the truth: no one is more responsible for Nokia’s problems than Nokia.  Their continuing decline can be explained in one word: Microsoft.

Nokia’s CEO Stephen Elop is a former Microsoft executive with a considerable investment, financially, in Microsoft, and we are told that we should accept it as a pure coincidence that Nokia is the only major handset maker solely dedicated to the Windows Phone platform.

You can’t exactly blame Microsoft, can you?  As former Windows Phone General Manager Charlie Kindel points out in his apologist blog post Windows Phone is Superior; Why Hasn’t It Taken Off?, one the reasons why Windows Phone is failing (but hardly the only reason) is because manufacturers and carriers prefer Android.  Apart from being a popular brand, Android is free and open source and requires no cooperation with or interference from Google.  Having experienced life without Microsoft, and proven they don’t need them, the manufacturers and carriers have little interest in promoting Windows Phone.

You can’t hold it against Microsoft for begging, twisting arms, calling in markers all across the industry in a desperate bid to be popular with someone, and to turn to their classic tactic of paying anyone huge money who will make and promote their devices and no others.  Of course it’s no coincidence Elop was a former Microsoftie, and that Nokia is now dedicated to Windows Phone in the smartphone market.

Analysts look at the move and they tend to speak of the reach of Nokia into other markets, especially developing markets where most people are still without smartphones.  What they seem to forget is that there is a world outside of the postindustrial world where people are less concerned with waiting three days in line for the newest iPhone than with having three meals a day and a roof over their heads.

What made Nokia so powerful was, as Holwerda says, making the cell phone affordable and available to people in developing markets.  There is already an operating system doing that for smartphones and tablets… and it isn’t Windows.  Ironically Microsoft used to be good, if not great, at reaching developing markets with things like Windows 7 Starter Edition, and an army of affordable PC’s, or even free PC’s given away by charities and other groups and organizations.

When you look at Windows Phone, however, there is absolutely no resemblance.  While many Windows Phones have the appearance of being cheap through subsidies from major carriers, the truth is they aren’t cheap, and unlike Windows, which could be installed on a wide variety of hardware, Windows Phone has very strict hardware compliance standards.  Where it was easy to build a Windows PC, and make it as affordable as possible, Windows Phones can’t be made dirt cheap.

Android can.  If Nokia had wanted to continue to be the people who brought affordable phones to the world, why would they throw down entirely on Windows Phone?  Windows Phone isn’t changing the world, it isn’t even changing the smartphone market in the developed world.

Microsoft has tried every trick in the book to stay competitive, they’ve even thrown magic (Nokia’s everyday magic campaign) at the problem, and the truth is they literally can’t give these things away; they tried through their Windows Stores, and while I’m sure some people took the bait, had it been free iPhones the resulting mob would have torn the store apart and crushed each other to get their hands on it.  Heck even free Blackberries would have got more excitement.

I don’t care how much money Microsoft throws at Nokia, it won’t compare with the army of free or cheap Androids being churned out around the world every day.  We can talk about patent war and fragmentation and painful upgrade cycles, but I dare anyone to look into the eyes of an Indian child sporting his free Akash Android tablet bought for him and 100,000 of his fellow schoolchildren by the Indian Government.

When you finish wiping the tears from your eyes, tell me that any of that amounts to more than the entitlement hogwash of people who already have everything and still can’t get enough?  These will find their way to hands of people who would never be able to afford an Apple, Amazon, or Microsoft anything.  But you won’t hear nearly as much reporting about this as about how many millions of Kindle Fires or iPhones shipped this holiday season.

These aren’t just content devices for the spoiled children of the developed world, who Tweet their hatred of their parents on Christmas Day when they didn’t get their iPad 2.  A smartphone or a tablet isn’t just a toy, it’s a portal to the world, a teaching tool, a platform for learning the technologies that are changing and driving the worlds of today and the future.  It’s a way of leveling the playing field for those who otherwise would be denied virtually every means of improving their lot in life.  It’s freaking hope for someone who was hopeless!  I’m not sure any of us can truly understand that without being there, but we should try.

So while the analysts are flapping their jaws about what a brilliant strategy it was for Nokia and Microsoft to partner up, let’s all get a little perspective here: Nokia sold out on their vision of being the company that brought these devices to the world.  Some have called the smartphone the Top Invention of All Time, but Nokia certainly won’t be getting much of the credit for it, and certainly not Windows Phone.  I couldn’t finish with any words better than Holwerda’s:

“What Nokia did for the mobile phone, Android is doing for the smartphone. It’s not Apple that’s going to put a smartphone in every corner of the globe – it’s not Microsoft; heck, not even Google, but Android. In ten to fifteen years’ time, we will look back and regard Android as the technology that enabled even the poorest people in this world to have access to the web (and thus, knowledge), just like we regard Nokia as the company that put the mobile phone in every corner of the globe.

Of all the features, of all the first world problem whining, of all the lawsuits, of all the lacking updates, of all the antennagates, of all the pentile matrix nonsense, of all the large displays, of all the design patents, of all the everything – that is what makes Android revolutionary.

And that’s worth ten billion bullshit bounce-back scrolling software patents.”

Truer words may never have been spoken