Owning the Next Digital Frontier
I have watched the news from Redmond and Espoo recently with a sinking heart. On the one hand, Microsoft seems to be accelerating their mobile vision with great success. Nokia, the only company capable of offering an alternative to a Microsoft monopoly, on the other hand is stumbling.
My particular bugaboo (after four years at Borland) is the development ecosystem. I firmly believe that the mobile phone is going to become a computer in our pocket. There are 1.34 billion mobile phone users in the world and only 676 million Internet users. For the vast majority of the world, the phone will become the primary access vehicle to the Internet, and thus the portal to information, communication, and data creation.
As the phone becomes a computer, and while the market is fragmented into Microsoft, Symbian, and potentially Linux operating systems, software development will be the crucial battleground for phone manufacturers in differentiating their product offerings. Microsoft understands the developer and the importance of the development ecosystem. It was no surprise to learn this week that Microsoft has released a free mobile application development environment. Needless to say they will back it up with education resources, support for publications (books and magazines on mobile development), support for companies creating applications...
At Web 2.0 last week, Stewart Butterfield (founder of Flickr) told an anecdote about Microsoft. As his team was building their first product, they got a friendly phone call from Microsoft developer support. They person calling said, effectively, "hi, I am not calling to sell you anything -- I just want to know if there is anything Microsoft can do to support you as a developer." Needless to say, Microsoft can't call every single software developer in the world with this offer. But this kind of outreach is an indicator of how seriously they take the 3rd party development community, and the lengths they will go to to help developers be successful.
Where is Nokia? I joined the developer community. I asked for information about how I could get ahold of the product -- I am even willing to pay for it -- that we wanted to target for development. Nothing. Not even an email letting me know that the product was now commercially shipping, so even though they hadn't been able to provide me with a pre-release version, I could now buy it at a Nokia store.
How about LifeBlog (Nokia's effort to integrate data on the phone with the PC)? Great that they announced a partnership with SixApart but where is the open API and developer support program so that ANYONE can build a compelling application that integrates with LifeBlog, not just Christian Lindholm's friends?
How about just getting syncing right? Russell Beattie rightly points out in his blog that Nokia can't even synchronize address book and calendar data with the PC -- again, where is the open API with developer support so that the 3rd party community can fix this for Nokia?
Recently Nokia announced that they had licensed application development technology from Metrowerks. Nokia CTO Pertti Korhonen (who I hold in high regard) was quoted as saying
“This agreement illustrates Nokia’s commitment to Symbian as the best operating system for advanced mobile devices as well as our support to Symbian as the leading mobile platform for device creation and application development... The transaction will enable Nokia to provide developers with a comprehensive wireless tools portfolio, helping them to grow their mobile application revenues. We are very happy to work with Metrowerks in this important area.”This is the right rhetoric, but a month and a half have gone by and developers have heard nothing more. The same "personal edition" of CodeWarrior, for a purchase price of $399 is listed on the Nokia Developer web site.
For Nokia to succeed in challenging Microsoft, they will have to be 10 times more effective in wooing developers. Here are a few of the things that have to be done well: open supported developer APIs to all aspects of the device, synchronization, and the programs around the platform such as LifeBlog; a free high-quality development environment that makes it easy for developers to utilize these APIs, test their applications, and deploy across the Nokia family of devices; pro-active support for the third party development community starting with sponsorship of magazines and books and conferences and continuing through to pro-active outbound calls to developers to offer consulting, developer kits, phones for testing; interaction with the VC community to educate the VCs on the opportunity to build successful companies around the Nokia ecosystem...
It is an uphill battle and the news I keep hearing indicates that it is a battle that is being lost. It may be that as soon as 2006 Microsoft has become the dominant player in the smartphone category -- the category that I believe will eventually take over all phone sales worldwide.