Microsoft and Nokia: A Tale of Two Elephants

When Microsoft released Windows Phone 7 in the United States yesterday, very few people lined up at the AT&T and T-Mobile stores to get the HTC and Samsung debut models -- despite all the extensive Windows Phone 7 advertising by Microsoft to goose up demand. (Maybe they read the unenthusiasic reviews from publications that got early versions.)

When Nokia announced yesterday that it was reabsorbing the Symbian operating system it had spun out as an open source effort 18 months ago, I thought, "Why bother? I thought MeeGo was your mobile OS future anyhow?" -- especially given the lack of attention to the last major release of Symbian (Symbian 3) in September.

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Two giants in mobile computing have become the elephants in the room, taking up space but grabbing little attention. They continue to go through the motions, but to little effect. Maybe we're waiting for them to politely excuse themselves and go away, but I suspect they'll stay on the scene and wave their arms for some time to come, desperately hoping to be taken seriously again.

Elephant No. 1: Microsoft crashes first

Microsoft is easy to criticize: It killed Windows Mobile a year ago, after letting the once-important operating system wander aimlessly for years. It then backtracked and reinstated Windows Mobile for embedded devices and perhaps tablets -- though those could run Windows 7 as well.

Microsoft made a lot of noise last winter with Windows Phone 7, whose user interface is innovative. But then it crippled the OS by leaving out tons of basic capabilities easily found elsewhere: device encryption, HTML5, multitasking, copy and paste, devicewide search, and Flash support. It became evident quickly that Microsoft was producing a "dumb blonde" phone, followed by its "dumber blonde" phones this past spring, the silly Kin phones that lasted just weeks in the market, the last gasp of the Danger OS it acquired some years ago.

All this shows a flailing company that has distracted itself from building an advanced mobile OS while letting everything else in its mobile portfolio crumble. Does anyone really believe Microsoft is in the mobile game any more? To me, the incomplete operating system that is Windows Phone 7 is the car crash whose injuries will kill this elephant by 2012. I wonder how long it will take for all those Microsoft employees being given Windows Phone 7 devices to secretly go back to their iPhones and Droids. (For the record, I just got a production unit of a Windows Phone 7 device, so stay tuned for a full review of the real thing.)

Elephant No. 2: Nokia is gunning for the cliff

Nokia is a more interesting elephant, because its slow-motion car crash is still in progress, and we can see it heading to the cliff.

The Nokia story is similar to Microsoft's: It hasn't advanced the Symbian OS very much since the iPhone changed the mobile game nearly four years ago. Worse, it became less competitive when it open-sourced the Symbian OS 18 months ago, putting its fate in the hands of technical committees, which take years to come to decisions, as anyone watching the painfully slow progress of Wi-Fi, WiMax, HTML5, and other key standards can attest. Nokia then proclaimed Maemo as its next-gen OS, only to stop that effort after about a year and team up in early 2010 with Intel to produce MeeGo as an open source effort (yikes! not again!). Its first working version (1.2) for smartphones is due in April 2011.

No one really believes that MeeGo will advance the state of the art in mobile, and coming up to par with the iOS or Android OS won't cut it. Just look at Research in Motion; it too was slow to respond but finally came up with a plausible platform, as seen in BlackBerry OS 6 and the BlackBerry Torch this summer. RIM is losing market share despite having finally entered the game. When Nokia finally tries to join in, it'll be lucky to find a bench to sit on.

Nokia is also confusing matters with its takeback of Symbian. Why continue to invest in Symbian if MeeGo is the future? Perhaps Nokia is as untrusting of its new platform as Microsoft has proved to be with Windows Phone 7. It could be keeping Symbian alive as a backstop, as Microsoft seems to be doing with Windows Mobile (aka Windows Compact Embedded).

The truth may be more practical: MeeGo is for smartphones and other next-gen mobile devices, and Symbian is for plain old cell phones that make up the vast majority of Nokia's sales. Nokia has said that in the past, but for a long time it's been murky as to its strategy. I'm not sure Nokia knows any more, and its new CEO has very little time to figure it out.

The way things are going, I suspect April 2011 will roll around and we'll see a replay of yesterday's Windows Phone 7 debut: no lines of eager customers awaiting Nokia's first MeeGo devices.

I guess the good news is that whatever happens with Microsoft and Nokia, there are compelling devices running Apple's iOS, Google's Android, and even RIM's BlackBerry.

This article, "Microsoft and Nokia: A tale of two elephants," was originally published at InfoWorld.com. Read more of Gruman et al.'s Mobile Edge blog and follow the latest developments in mobile technology at InfoWorld.com.

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