Nokia’s dark trojan horse

Everyone, see this column below? Right.

It used to be an emotionally-driven rant filled with psycho-babble, downright depressing in some areas and (if I may admit) a little bit irrelevant. Those in the smartphone industry who had a head screwed on would have seen the collaboration with Nokia and Microsoft coming from a mile away. I certainly saw one myself, but not to the extent of  an OS adoption, porting of all Ovi services to WP7, deprecating the Ovi branding, staving off further development of Symbian software and the culling of MeeGo from long-term service and QT development along with it.

To Nokia fanboys its basically a death of all things Nokian. Even I said so on the NAG Forums, and I still contend that Nokia has made possibly the worst and most difficult choice in its entire existence. But now I’m not so sure if the company is really quitting, or holding a winning hand of cards in their poker game with Microsoft and bluffing like hell.

See, many people today are comparing the partnership to the complete disassembly and death of Sendo, another handset manufacturer who agreed to partner with Microsoft in 2000. After a very long court battle with the Redmond giant (for allegedly stealing trade secrets from Sendo for the development of Windows Mobile) whose desktop OS was just gaining massive traction, they bailed out and entered into a settlement agreement with Microsoft in 2002. Microsoft never delivered the goods according to the partnership contract, and this caused Sendo to lose millions because it had no competitive devices. They were eventually forced to use Symbian, but crashed and died not long after in 2003. The remnants of the company were bought by Microsoft, and they assimilated the designs and IP that Sendo has into what we know today as Windows Mobile.

While Microsoft has a habit of treating its partners rather badly – sometimes consuming them whole – its on a tight leash these days. Windows Phone 7 has cost billions in development, and the management execs are keen to see some return on their investment. While other hardware manufacturers have already shown some support for Microsoft’s mobile OS, none have really done anything to differentiate themselves. Microsoft, now understandably desperate to get those 2 million+ Wp7 licenses to the public, approached Nokia with a deal – the details of which we all discovered on Friday the 11th.

Since then I’ve carefully gathered my thoughts about the partnership, and I’ve even changed my mindset a little. But the fact remains that I’m not 100% in support of this deal, not until I see some concrete evidence that there’s some serious stuff in the works here. And here’s where I think Nokia might win with this deal.

If only Nokia would win with deciding chart colours, blue looks way too bland and unexciting.

Most of the problems thus far with WP7 have been with differentiation of a different sort to the one Android suffers. The hardware remains the same amongst the phones because of Microsoft’s stringent hardware requirements. Nokia can differentiate by integrating WP7 with their current hardware, much like the N8 does. Symbian ^3 is remarkably efficient and fast because it uses the GPU for intensive stuff, with the CPU backing it up for general tasks. In general tasks, the GPU only has to draw what’s on the screen, and uses very little power. For GPU-intensive tasks, the CPU organises the back-end functions and does some minor work. In between this efficient configuration, all hardware inside Nokia phones is designed to consume as little power as possible while still ending up more usable than the competition, sometimes even beating out dedicated devices.

This is how they can differentiate. Do you want a WP7 mobile that can travel around the world with you? Choose a Nokia. Do you need a point-and-shoot camera capable enough to replace your dedicated one? Choose  Nokia. Ultra-connectivity? Nokia. Longer battery life? Nokia. Excellent build quality using industrial-strength materials? Nokia again. Free navigation with downloadable maps? Nokia. iTunes-like music store without DRM? Nokia. I really could go on and on. Big Screen? Only a Nokia device can do it.

Of course its a huge gamble, and of course it could fail spectacularly. In my mind, the best way forward for a collaboration would have been to only integrate Ovi services and introduce a QT port for the American market, with the European, African and Asian regions sticking with Symbian as their OS of choice. The American market was forever changed with the introduction of iOS on mobile devices, and naturally they’re a completely different bunch altogether.

Getting Nokia into Microsoft’s bed wouldn’t have neen necessary at all – indeed, a partnership by the Symbian Foundation and developers could have easily seen apps like Gravity, Swype, and many other downloadable programs that allow Symbian to mimic Android and iOS social connectivity be pre-installed on certain Symbian smartphones. One of the main reasons why people choose an Android or iOS is because out of the box they’re already primed for social networking. Asking American users to set up their devices on their own, it seems, was far too much to ask.

But the deal is done and dusted, so its no use crying about it now. If it works well, we might even see Microsoft buy out controlling shares in Nokia – and that’d still be a somewhat-good thing on all counts. And yes, my beloved Symbian does fly out the window (pun!), but so long as I see innovation on WP7 like I saw on Symbian ^3, I believe the future is bright for Nokia. So long as Microsoft doesn’t screw this up again, we’ll see it rule in the mobile segment for the first time in years.

And so long as fans and devs continue to buy and support Symbian smartphones, so Nokia will have the most easily affordable Plan B the world has ever known.