Is Nokia trying to attract app developers or scare them away?

14/8/2010

Nokia Levant Developer Forum

Be warned. It’s time for another long Nokia post on 360east! Last week ago I was in Beirut to attend the first Nokia Levant Developers Forum.

The fact that Nokia actually holds such local events and goes through the trouble and cost of flying people to Beirut shows you how hard the company is trying to stay relevant. Not even in your dreams would Apple or Google hold a developers forum just for the Levant.

Now I am not an app developer (in the technical sense), but the companies I am involved in definitely provide mobile app design and development services. So as I was sitting through the half-day of presentations in Beirut I was wearing several hats: that of a developer, that of a blogger and also that of corporate communication consultant. The latter hat is, after all, my day job.

I am geeky enough to understand what an SDK is and how an application development environment works. I even can endure (or even enjoy) a talk about coding!

So, in return for flying me to Beirut, a city I greatly admire, I decided to turn this blog post into a piece of free advice to Nokia, a company that I also admire (despite its uninspiring phones lately and its outright clunky user experience).

The Nokia’s Levant Developer Forum intention was to “bring the ecosystem together”. Developers, businesses, consumers and marketers all need to connect if the app revolution is ever to come to Nokia. And it was interesting to watch Nokia actually trying to do this in the Levant.

But the first thing I felt at the Forum is: Nokia is doing all the right things, but it looks like its awaited app revolution just isn’t coming together.

Why?

Well here are my thoughts on this.

Let’s start from the consumer..

User Experience, User Experience, User Experience As a user of both a Nokia X6 and an iPad I can tell you this: browsing and shopping for apps on the iPad is a sheer pleasure. I actually LOOK FORWARD to finding and downloading new apps for the iPad. The same cannot be said for the X6. I really hate the OVI store. I know that Nokia keeps trying to improve it. But it is simply a clunky and a kind of stop-and-go experience. In my mind it is a series of pop up warnings.

In the Forum, Nokia talked about how dominant it is in the Levant in terms of number of handsets. It talked about how its Jordanian users are all technology and gadget lovers. It talked about how relevant its local maps are. But here is the first piece of advice: as long as the Nokia user experience is not fixed, and I mean on the phone and on its desktop software, people will not start downloading and buying apps.

I LOVE the Nokia Amman map for example. But I had the X6 for a few months now and did not get around to downloading the map. It doesn’t download automatically on the phone over Wifi. The Nokia MapLoader on the Mac seems buggy. And I had a bad experience with the OVI suite on Windows (even some Nokia people told me its better to use the old Map Loader). Do you see the problem. A free map and free navigation is available, but the bad user experience is getting in the way.

One of the cool apps I DID download on the X6 is Joikuspot, which allows me to turn the phone into a WiFi hotspot anywhere (using the phone’s mobile data connection). It works fine. But I distinctly remember that the process of getting onto the phone was not really smooth.

It’s almost like Nokia has to forget everything for a few months and just concentrate on revolutionizing its user experience and interfaces.

Don’t confuse developers with a million choices After the introductory marketing presentations at the Forum, it was time to go a bit more technical.

An hour into the show, I felt that Nokia was describing a maze that consists of devices, operating systems and development platforms. A dizzying array of choices, development methods, add-ons and other auxiliary stuff.

At the heart of this maze is the fact that Nokia, with its dominant position in handsets, is in love with its legacy and it honestly thinks that even its S40 based feature phones are a lucrative opportunity for developers. Then there’s Symbian, which is going through an upheaval with the move to Symbian3 and Symbian4. And there is MeeGo, which used to be Maemo but now is being merged with Intel’s Moblin to make MeeGo.

Amazingly, Nokia seems committed to ALL of that.

When talking to some Nokia people at the forum, there is a distinct “engineer’s” attitude to all of this. The cure-all answer to this maze is: QT (pronounced “cute”), the new development platform which let’s you write your application once and deploy it on Nokia’s multiple OS’s. To Nokia people, everything is clear. They say “what is the problem” and tell you that everything makes sense.

Yes, it does. Exactly like a spaceship makes sense to its makers. But if you are a mere mortal like me, or a company or freelance developer thinking of testing the waters of mobile app development, I think that Nokia’s messages and array of choices will bewilder you, and probably scare you.

For example: a lot of time in the forum was spent discussing native apps and web apps which can access phone functions too (I think there was even a third choice which I now forgot). Slide upon slide where shown discussing the pros and cons of each type, giving me the feeling that I will have to really do a lot of research before even starting development.

Then Nokia told us about a service for developers which allows them to test their code on actual Nokia hardware remotely. A clever solution to a problem that Nokia has created by coming up with so many handset choices (which is a problem of legacy, again).

Even the “signing” of apps, which I guess is some sort of certification measure, warranted lengthy explanations because Nokia is revamping that process and its fee structure.

The end result of all of this is that although all the Nokia people’s presentations were professional and earnest, my mind was beaten into a pulp by the time the presentations were over.

All of this would be OK if your competitor wasn’t called Apple which has a clear message, a limited range of handsets, one OS and no legacy.

Even if Nokia want to support all these OSs and devices, here is some communication advice: don’t talk about it all at once. Even developers are human beings who suffer information overload. Simplify your messaging to developers.

Where are the success stories? One thing I wanted to see in this Forum was some regional success stories. But for this first edition of the event these were missing. It would have been extremely powerful if a Lebanese, Jordanian, Palestinians, Syrian or Iraqi app developer actually took the the stage and told us how he/she developed and sold an app successfully in the region or worldwide.

The only third party that made an appearance was an ad agency which basically just gave a speech about the importance of technology in marketing today. If anything this exposed how far behind the advertising business is in the region.

If Nokia wants to show the ecosystem actually working, the best way is to give the stage to developers who can share their stories and experience.

Owning the future, not the past Nokia tell us that a lot of its customers are tech freaks. Fine. But from my casual observation, I think that geeks and real gadget freaks in the region are going for the iPhone and are starting to show interest in Android. Even my wife, who is no tech freak, has switched to the iPhone after a decade and a half with Nokia and she loves some of the apps on her phone.

I was surprised at how little MeeGo was talked about in the Forum. A demo of MeeGo would at least have ignited some interest in Nokia’s future. But Nokia still chooses to talk about Symbian S40 and S60 and so on and so forth at a time where Apple and Google are busy gobbling up mind and market share and even Microsoft is betting its mobile future on a new, clean OS, namely Windows Phone 7 (which breaks with its legacy completely).

Does Nokia seriously think that feature phone users or even most of its Symbian phone users will be the early adopters of apps in the region?

When Nokia released the N900 running Maemo, I felt that something exciting was happening. Here was a product with edge and character. But the excitement that Maemo has generated has now been lost in the wait for MeeGo.

It’s a particularly difficult moment for the Nokia brand: a dominant company that is losing mindshare, lagging behind in terms of user experience and excitement, proud of its legacy but still waiting for the future. It’s difficult for me to imagine how an app revolution will happen under such circumstances.

My gut feeling would be to say something radical needs to happen (like totally dropping support for Symbian and just focusing on MeeGo).

But the Finns might have something else in mind. Maybe they will depend on their installed base and slowly but surely arrive at the shores of safety. Being a company that is so old and that has already transformed itself several times over the last 100 years maybe gives them some form of inner confidence that things will sort themselves out.

I will certainly keep an eye on Nokia.

3 Comments

  1. [...] Of course, Nokia, as the biggest smartphone maker in the world, should have a healthy developer pool to draw from. It should, but it doesn’t. Even before the move today, developers had been frustrated with Nokia’s development platform efforts. Now that the company is basically telling devs that they should throw out what they have learned and switch to a completely different set of tools (since Nokia’s cross-platform Qt development framework isn’t part of its WP7 strategy), I wouldn’t be surprised if most just throw up their hands and move to a stable model with a proven ability to generate revenue, like iOS. [...]

  2. [...] Of course, Nokia, as the biggest smartphone maker in the world, should have a healthy developer pool to draw from. It should, but it doesn’t. Even before the move today, developers had been frustrated with Nokia’s development platform efforts.Now that the company is basically telling devs they should throw out what they’ve learned and switch to a completely different set of tools (since Nokia’s cross-platform Qt development framework isn’t part of its WP7 strategy), I wouldn’t be surprised if most just throw up their hands and move to a stable model with a proven ability to generate revenue, like iOS. [...]

  3. [...] Of course, Nokia, as the biggest smartphone maker in the world, should have a healthy developer pool to draw from. It should, but it doesn’t. Even before the move today, developers had been frustrated with Nokia’s development platform efforts.Now that the company is basically telling devs they should throw out what they’ve learned and switch to a completely different set of tools (since Nokia’s cross-platform Qt development framework isn’t part of its WP7 strategy), I wouldn’t be surprised if most just throw up their hands and move to a stable model with a proven ability to generate revenue, like iOS. [...]

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