Nokia goes for 1% market share in the US

Okay, I'll admit in advance that this is going to be a pretty snarky post, but it never ceases to amaze me how badly Nokia handles itself in the US market. In Europe and most of the rest of the world, Nokia operates like a fighter jet, incredibly nimble and powerful. But in the US, it's more like a biplane. An old biplane. With holes in the wings. Nokia's market share in the US has dropped from 20% to 7% in the last two years (link), and sometimes I wonder if it's trying for 1%.

Case in point: Nokia's "Open to Anything" ad campaign featuring people who have created software for Nokia N95 smartphones (link).

It features, swear to God, a guy who created a self-hypnosis application for the N95, someone who created a bad breath detector, a man in the Witness Protection Program who created a location-aware app to track the hit men chasing him, a ditzy woman who uses the phone to track fertilizer schedules for her plants, a jealous wife who created a lie detector, and a flake Jewish photographer who glued together two n95s to create a 3D camera.

"You've never really seen a bris until you've seen a bris in 3D." --Nokia's website

They're all fantasy applications from obviously fake people, but beautifully animated in an elaborate Flash-driven site.

From time to time, I've talked with Nokia employees who were confused about why people don't buy more application software for their Nokia S60 smartphones. There are a lot of reasons -- lack of awareness that they can do it, lack of a built-in software store on the device, incompatibility between various versions of S60, etc. But one huge reason is because no one has ever made a compelling case to most users on why they should care about smartphone software.

The triumph of creativity over business sense

The Open to Anything campaign is a great example of how Nokia's hurting itself in the applications business, and in the US market in general. I'm sure Nokia's intent was to do something light-hearted to draw attention to the N95, and if you view the ads as standalone short films they are moderately witty. You see this a lot in online marketing lately -- a creative agency will create humorous websites (often with video) designed to draw traffic from bored web surfers. But unless the ads also align with your strategy, they don't drive sales. In Nokia's case, they actually do harm:

--Once again, Nokia is communicating that its users are freaks and morons, which in the US is not the way to build a loyal following. Nokia has a long habit in the US of positioning itself as the preferred phone of people who lack social skills. At least this time there aren't any sluts in the ad (link).

--The benefit of an open phone is not that you can write your own apps, it's that you can buy applications created by others. Almost no one wants to create their own apps. So we're being told that N95 users are not only freaks and morons, but they are freaks and morons who have programming skills -- an even narrower demographic.

--Since the argument for why users should care about applications has not been made, showing a bunch of nonsensical applications actually makes people less likely to take an interest in mobile apps at all. It trivializes the whole idea of mobile software, at a time when Nokia claims it is trying to make itself into a computing company that can compete with Apple and Google.

Meanwhile, Apple's ads depict its users as smart and hip, it puts its CEO on stage with real developers showing lustworthy iPhone applications, and it plans a built-in software store for the iPhone. Care to guess which platform is going to get more user and developer loyalty?

I'm tempted to start taking bets on when the iPhone application base will be larger than S60's. Unless Nokia wises up quickly, it won't take long.

WiMax gets closer and further away at the same time

A strangely cryptic article in the New York Times today announced that several companies had banded together "to build the first of a new generation of nationwide wireless data networks" in the US (link). I read it and thought to myself: what, another new vaporware wireless technology? I couldn't make sense of the article, so I went to the websites of some of the companies involved. It turns out the announcement isn't a new vaporware wireless technology, it's my favorite old vaporware wireless technology, WiMax (link). Sprint finally figured out what to do with it.

The announcement was both interesting and supremely frustrating. The interesting part was that Sprint has brought several promising investors into WiMax, including Google. That's right, Google is launching a wireless network, if only as a minority investor. (And it got a sweet deal, which I'll explain below.) The unbelievably frustrating part is that Sprint has pretty much slipped the deployment plan for WiMax by another two years. It's hard to get excited about a new technology, no matter how great the investors, when I have zero confidence in the companies' ability to deliver.

Here's what was announced:

Sprint and several companies have banded together to buy Clearwire, the other wireless company that had been building a WiMax network in the US. Clearwire will be merged with Sprint's WiMax division, the company will be managed by a mix of Clearwire and Sprint executives, and will be headquartered at Clearwire's site in Washington state.

Investors in the merged company, to be called Clearwire, include Google, Comcast, Intel, TimeWarner Cable, Bright House Networks, and Trilogy Equity Partners. Intel and Comcast are investing about $1 billion each, TimeWarner and Google about $500 million, Bright House $100 million, and Trilogy $10 million.

Google gets to be the preferred search provider for both Sprint and Clearwire, will provide apps (including Gmail, YouTube, and Maps) for bundling with devices, and Clearwire will sell devices running Google Android. Google and Clearwire will also partner to develop advertising, applications, and create the operating principles for the network (link). Google said it will work with Clearwire to create:

An open Internet protocol to work with mobile broadband devices...and implementing other open network practices and policies....The network will: (1) expand advanced high speed wireless Internet access in the U.S., (2) allow consumers to utilize any lawful applications, content and devices without blocking, degrading or impairing Internet traffic and (3) engage in reasonable and competitively-neutral network management.

Intel will provide WiMax chips (which it was doing anyway), and Sprint, TimeWarner, Comcast, and Bright House will all become Clearwire resellers.

The new company will be 51% owned by Sprint, and its governance structure is so nuanced that I won't even try to explain it here.

As part of the announcement, Sprint slipped in an estimate that the new Clearwire network will reach 120 million to 140 million people by the end of 2010 (link).

What it means

Death to the Xohm. On a personal basis, the most exciting part of the announcement is that Sprint is apparently dropping the brand name Xohm, which it was using for its WiMax services. I am very sympathetic to the troubles that companies have finding brand names that aren't already trademarked. But even by my lowered standards, I thought Xohm was a bizarre name. To me, it sounded like something you'd read in a bad science fiction novel. The Xohm would be a race of homicidal crustaceans bent on destroying humanity.

"Captain, the Xohm have deployed a quantum weak force destabilizer!"

"Good God! That could rupture the very fabric of space-time!"

Google gets a wireless network. The company that made out like The Xohm in this deal is Google. For just $500 million (little more than gas money for the corporate jet in Google terms), the company gets preferred placement for its services on both Clearwire and Sprint; a showcase for its apps, advertising, and OS; and the opportunity to design the business model for a national wireless network. No wonder Google didn't bother to bid seriously in the recent US wireless spectrum auction -- why build a network when you can play with one for a tenth the price?

Comcast, Time Warner, and Bright House all get quadruple play options. They can pair Clearwire services with their current cable businesses to deliver advanced bundles of wireless services, Internet access, telephony, and television.

Will it succeed?

The reaction to the deal on some prominent tech blogs seems to range from lukewarm (link) to intensely negative (link). But I think there's a lot to like about it. The involvement of Google means we're very likely to get a pretty much open ecosystem on a major wireless network, which Silicon Valley has been collectively screaming about for years. The size of the investments mean there is a lot of money available to build out the network. People ought to be dancing in the streets here, but instead most of them appear to be either yawning or throwing spitwads.

I'd be out there dancing myself if it weren't for the slip in the schedule. A year and a half ago Sprint announced that its WiMax network would reach 100 million people by the end of 2008 (link). Now Sprint says that by the end of 2010 the network will reach 120-140 million people. So in the last 18 months, the schedule has basically slipped by 24 months. It's going backwards. At this rate we'll have passenger rockets to Pluto before we have WiMax service.

Hopefully the management of the new Clearwire will be dominated by people from outside Sprint. I want to believe that they can build out this network; we need it both for the service itself and as an example of how to grow an open mobile ecosystem. But it's very hard to trust people who have missed their targets as badly as these guys have.

Some other interesting commentary on the deal:

Muni Wireless on the cable companies' motives for investing (link).
Fierce Wireless explains the ownership structure (link).
Sprint's amazingly complex press release (link).


Thanks to Xellular Identity for including last week's post on Adobe in the latest Carnival of the Mobilists (link).

Adobe frees mobile flash: It's about time

Today Adobe announced a series of changes to its emerging web applications platform. The changes include:

--The next version of the mobile Flash runtime will be free of license fees. Adobe also confirmed that the mobile version of the Air runtime will be free.

--Adobe changed its licensing terms and released additional technical information that will make it easier for companies to create their own Flash-compatible products.

--The company announced a new consortium called Open Screen supporting the more open versions of Flash and Air. Members of the new group include the five leading handset companies, three mobile operators (including NTT DoCoMo and Verizon), technology vendors (including Intel, Cisco, and Qualcomm), and content companies (BBC, MTV, and NBC Universal). Google, Apple, and Microsoft are not members. It's not clear to me what the consortium members have actually agreed to do. My guess is it's mostly a political group.

Adobe said that the idea behind the announcements is to create a single consistent platform that lets developers create an application or piece of content once and run it across various types of devices and operating systems. That idea is very appealing to developers and content companies today. It was equally appealing two years ago, when then-CEO of Adobe Bruce Chizen made the exact same promise (link):

If we execute appropriately we will be the engagement platform, or the layer, on top of anything that has an LCD display, any computing device -- everything from a refrigerator to an automobile to a video game to a computer to a mobile phone.

If Adobe had made the Open Screen announcement two years ago, I think it could have caught Microsoft completely flat-footed, and Adobe might have been in a very powerful position by now. But by waiting two years, Adobe gave Microsoft advance warning and plenty of runway room to react -- so much so that ArsTechnica today called Adobe's announcement a reaction to Microsoft Silverlight (link).

Also, the most important changes appear to apply to the next version of mobile Flash and the upcoming mobile version of Air -- meaning this was in part a vaporware announcement. Even when the new runtime software ships, it will take a long time to get it integrated into mobile phones. So once again, Microsoft has a long runway to maneuver on.

Still, the changes Adobe made are very useful. There's no way Flash could have become ubiquitous in the mobile world while Adobe was still charging fees for it. The changes to the Flash license terms remove one of the biggest objections I've seen to Flash from open source advocates (link). The Flash community seems excited (link, link). And the list of supporters is impressive. Looking through the obligatory quotes attached to the Adobe release, two things stand out:

--Adobe got direct mentions of Air from ARM, Intel, SonyEricsson, Verizon, and Nokia (although Nokia promised only to explore Air, while it's on the record promising to bundle Silverlight mobile).

--The inclusion of NBC Universal in the announcement will have Adobe people chuckling because Microsoft signed up NBC to stream the Olympics online using Silverlight. So NBC is warning Microsoft not to take it for granted, and Adobe gets to stick its tongue out.

What does it all mean?

Nothing much in the short term. As I mentioned earlier, this is mostly a vaporware announcement (other than the license changes). Some people are speculating that this will put pressure on Apple to make Flash available on the iPhone (link). That's possible, if Apple's real concern was that they didn't like Flash Lite. Now they can port full Flash, or someone else can do it. But if Apple is in reality unwilling to let anyone else's platform run on the iPhone then we'll see other objections to Flash emerge.

The marketing competition to control the future of web apps is continuing to heat up. Microsoft is trying to take the whole thing proprietary by creating a comprehensive architecture, Adobe is trying to drive its own platform, Sun is trying to re-energize Java, Google is making its own moves, and so on (link). Plus, of course, most web app developers today are happy with what they're using now and have little interest in switching to any of the new architectures (check out the dandy commentary by Joel Spolsky here).

It's an enormously complex situation, and it's going to take months, if not years, before we can start to see who's winning and who is losing. Rubicon is working on a white paper that will try to clarify the situation a bit. I'll let you know when it's published.

In the meantime, enjoy the marketing fireworks. The intense competition is forcing companies to innovate faster and open up their products, as Adobe did today. I think that process is good for just about everyone in the industry.