Should Nokia have gone with Android?

Ben Thompson writing at Stratechery has a new post today on BlackBerry and Nokia. In the post he argues that both companies should have opted into Android, and that had they done so, the Android landscape could very possibly look dramatically different (with Nokia as the clear leader, and BlackBerry holding on to their enterprise segment).

Nokia’s “burning platform” decision in Feb 2011 will likely be classic tech strategy case study material (if not already). In the 2.5 years since that fateful decision, Nokia Lumia has sold a bit more than 25 million units (according to Wikipedia), with 7.4MM in Q2 2013. By comparison Apple sold 31MM iPhones in its latest quarter, so it’s fair to say that Nokia’s Windows strategy probably hasn’t been as successful as they envisioned.

Having said that, I do have some doubts over Stratechery’s assertion that Nokia could have dominated Android like Samsung is doing so today:

  • By the Feb 2011 point, Samsung had already sold 10MM Galaxy S phones (in 2010), and a few months away from launching the Galaxy SII. Nokia’s first Lumia phone would only come in Nov 2011. In short, Samsung had already found its formula in Android, while Nokia would be in discovery mode
  • Unfortunately for Nokia, the iOS/Android smartphone era is the first mobile revolution that was started in Silicon Valley, unlike previous chapters in mobile history. The US market suddenly became the world leader in mobile innovation (you can measure it by app ecosystem revenue etc.), and this is a market that Nokia had neglected for almost a decade. Trying to regain a foothold in this market, whether with Android or Windows Phone, is going to be an uphill battle
  • In the iOS / Android era, hardware is not a differentiating factor. This is why every branded Android vendor tries to tack on their own software tweaks and/or even services. Nokia’s previous success relied on high quality hardware with memorable features (a great camera, great support for music etc.), and these strengths don’t come into play if it became an Android vendor. Going with Windows was an act of differentiation – Nokia is the majority Windows vendor with 80% share
  • Unlike the other industries that Stratechery related to (PC and console), the mobile industry has a giant elephant in the room – carriers. This is why I think there is room for a 3rd (or even 4th) platform, because there will be carriers that will give it enough distribution to survive. Furthermore, for an established horizontal service (e.g. Netflix), while the introduction of a new platform means additional cost, it is also a raising the barrier to entry for its competitors (as well as improving leverage against the existing platform owners), so the big services (Netflix, Facebook) would gladly jump in bed with the new platform

Why the Palm Pre has been subpar

As the inaugural post for this blog, I wanted to summarize some thoughts on why the Palm Pre has not lived up to the hype. There has been recent discussions how the Pre is far from meeting Sprint’s sales targets; earlier back there were also some talks of Palm cutting back on production. This is of course in sharp contrast to the fanfare we’re used to of recent iPhone launches (long lines, stock outs etc. – from personal experience, I had to trade up to the 32GB version of the 3GS as the 16GB were out of stock at the local AT&T).

So what went wrong for a product that, if you recall, had pretty impressive hype just a few months back? Below are my two cents.

  • Poor marketing execution. This is obviously the easiest target of all, since everyone has been talking about these ads that makes no sense (see Fake Steve Jobs’ ranting analysis here). Like Fake Steve says, these ads show that Palm and Sprint seem to be confused about who their target consumer is (female smartphone users? That’s a tiny market), and the execution itself is creepily effective at driving negative PR.
  • Lost PR momentum. Somewhat related to the previous point. The Pre was announced at the CES 2009 in January, and was definitely the hit product of the show. (I remember at the time being very hyped about the phone, and wanting to buy one immediately. The phone and its UI just looked very sexy.) However, as time passed, people’s interest gradually waned – the smartphone industry is extremely competitive with lots of players vying for consumer eyeballs, and Palm is not Apple, with a loyal base of media support (e.g. TUAW). With the benefit of hindsight, perhaps it would have been better if Palm kept Pre under wraps until very close to the launch date (of course there will be info leaks, but that would just help fuel the PR). And certainly it didn’t help that Apple announcing the iPhone 3GS two days after Pre launched in the US.
  • iPhone’s first mover advantage. Namely, installed user-base and scaled up App Store. This is actually a huge advantage for Apple, and appears to indicate a winner-takes-all end-game – the more users, the more developers, and therefore more quality apps, which in turn attracts more users. The primary and only reason that I again bought an iPhone upon arriving in the States (and bearing with AT&T) is the App Store. This is the equivalent of the Windows eco-system on PCs. Competing OSes just lack the richness of the applications available, and for a computing device, it is all about the apps.
  • But most fundamentally, unclear target consumer and value proposition. The Pre’s most innovative feature is the webOS, which supports concurrent applications – a key feature that the iPhone has not yet opened to 3rd party developers. However, the only people who would seriously care about this feature are smartphone power users – i.e. the millions of iPhone users – who can appreciate its benefits. But to convince iPhone users to switch, the Pre is lacking one major dimension: the App Store. There is no point in being able to run multiple apps if there are no apps. So in effect, the Pre’s most talked-about feature was a no-feature.

So what are the things that Palm could do to alleviate the situation?

  • Build up the developer eco-system. It’s cliched, but it has to be done. Palm needs to have quality apps on its phones. This is an uphill battle, but one which must be fought nonetheless. One thing that Palm can do to attract developers is to have an open platform for developers to publish their work (as opposed to Apple’s draconian control on apps).
  • Re-think its marketing strategy. And not just in terms of marketing communication – the entire marketing strategy, i.e. which geographic markets and which consumer segments. We should remember that the US is not the only mobile market in the world (Nokia, which has almost no share in the US market, is still the global leader in every mobile category, including smartphones). It’s probably an wild idea, but if Palm can focus on certain markets where the iPhone has not had such an impact, it could build up some user-base scale. (Again, while Nokia is heavily entrenched in most global markets, their smartphone eco-system – or the lack thereof – leaves plenty of space for newcomers to attack. In such markets as China, it’s more about the hardware and the UI, rather than the apps, and the Pre would probably fare better?)

It’s certainly not going to be a smooth revival at Palm. But they do have a quality product, they just need to realize who to sell it to.