Nokia and Microsoft, sittin' in a tree...

Multiple sources are reporting that Nokia is hedging its bets on mobile phone software:

-- The New York Times says Microsoft and Nokia will announce Wednesday that Microsoft is porting Office to Nokia's Symbian S60 phones (link).
--TechCrunch, quoting the Financial Times in Germany, claims Nokia is planning to dump Symbian in favor of its Maemo Linux operating system (link).
--Om Malik says he asked Nokia about it, and the company denied plans to dump Symbian. But the company also said, "recognizing that the value we bring to the consumer is increasingly represented through software, there is logically not just one software environment that fits all consumer and market needs." In other words, we have an open marriage with Symbian (link).

In one sense, this is absolutely not news for Nokia. It has been playing the field for years, trying to prevent any single company from gaining control over mobile software (and thereby imposing a standard on Nokia). The change is that in the past, most of that energy was aimed against Microsoft.

Microsoft too seems to be bending its standards. With the exception of the Mac, Microsoft has been extremely reluctant to license Office for other operating systems. In the past, if Nokia wanted Office, it would have been expected to license Windows Mobile.

But now both companies feel threatened by Apple and Google, and all of a sudden that ugly person across the dance floor looks a lot cuter.

The real question that no one seems to be asking is whether most customers will care about any of this stuff. Most Nokia smartphone users are blissfully unaware that their phones have an operating system, let alone whether it's Symbian or Maemo. They just want the phone to work well.

And speaking as a former Palm guy who dealt with the mobile market for years, putting Microsoft Office on a smartphone is like putting wings on a giraffe -- it may get you some attention, but it's not very practical.

Don't get me wrong, I like and admire QuickOffice, which is probably the leading Office-equivalent app in the mobile space today. It's a cool product, but for most people the screens of smartphones are too small for serious spreadsheet and word processing activity. It works, but it's awkward and produces eyestrain. Most people who have a serious need for Office on the go will just carry a netbook.

So Nokia and Microsoft will both get some nice publicity, but the announcements mean very little to the average user. What both Microsoft and Nokia need to do is create compelling new mobile functionality that's better than the stuff being produced by Apple and RIM. Until they do that, all the strategic alliances in the world won't make a significant difference.


Update: The announcement this morning was more subtle and perhaps far-reaching than what was reported yesterday. I think the strategic situation is still the same as what I described above, but there might be more value for users than I expected. More thoughts after I have a chance to digest the announcement.