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

There's so much hype in the mobile industry that I'm always reluctant to use a word like "shocking," but nothing else fits Nokia's announcement today that it will support Microsoft Silverlight.

If you missed the press release (link), Nokia said that it's going to make Microsoft Silverlight available for all of its mobile platforms -- Series 40 (the low-end phone OS), S60 (the high-end OS), and its Maemo Internet tablet. (It's not clear if Silverlight will be bundled or just offered as a download.) Silverlight is a web app graphics and interface layer, intended to displace Adobe Flash.

The announcement was shocking for several reasons:

--Up until now, Nokia and Adobe had worked together closely. Nokia is one of the few companies paying to bundle Flash on its phones, and Nokia had featured Adobe prominently at some of its developer events in Silicon Valley. So the announcement I was expecting was that Nokia would bundle Air, the next evolution of Flash, rather than its competitor.

--Nokia has generally treated Microsoft as the spawn of the devil. The whole Symbian OS consortium was designed primarily as a way to prevent Microsoft from getting a controlling role in mobile software. Now Nokia gives Microsoft's software layer a huge boost?

--Although Microsoft had hinted vaguely about taking Silverlight mobile, it had given no definite plans at all. So this is a huge step forward for Silverlight.

--Just a few weeks ago, Nokia bought TrollTech and announced that its software was going to unify development across Series 40 and S60. Now Nokia endorses Silverlight, which will also run across Series 40 and S60. Which one are developers supposed to focus on?

What in the world is going on?

I don't know. Nobody from Nokia has explained it to me, so I have to read between the lines. Nokia says in the press release: "Nokia aims to support market leading and content rich internet application environments and to embrace and encourage open innovation. By working with Microsoft, we are creating terrific opportunities and additional choices for the development community." Okay, so I guess what they're saying is that they want to support every platform and development option out there. Presumably the benefit to them is that they can claim their phones support more software than anyone else.

I doubt that's the only motivation, though. By supporting numerous platforms, Nokia reduces the possibility that any one of them can dominate the market and push around Nokia. It also lets Nokia play the sides off against one another. I'm sure the threat of embracing Air made Microsoft give Nokia a very good deal on Silverlight, and no doubt Nokia will now use its Microsoft relationship to get business concessions from Adobe (assuming that Nokia still plans to work with Adobe at all; that's not entirely clear).

Anyway, I can sort of see how this all works for Nokia strategically, although it feels like Nokia is trying too hard to be clever. I'm not as clear on the benefits of all this for mobile developers and users. As was covered in last week's post on mobile apps (link), many developers view the proliferation of platforms as a problem, not a benefit. Microsoft itself said in the Nokia press release:

"We want to make sure developers and designers don't have to constantly recreate the wheel and build different versions of applications and services for multiple operating systems, browsers and platforms."

That's a pretty danged funny quote coming from a company that now offers at least four mobile platforms (two versions of Windows Mobile, Silverlight, Tablet PC, and does .Net CF count as a fifth?), in a press release from a company that apparently wants to support every platform available. If you really think platform confusion is a problem, guys, look in a mirror.

For users, the benefit of all this deal-making is unclear. We're stumbling into a world where you'll need to know details of which platforms are loaded on a particular phone in order to know which apps it can run. I can't think of a better way to discourage use of mobile applications.


Gábor Török said...

We all know that Nokia has been advertising themselves as an Internet company for quite a while now. Nevertheless, they're still not too popular in this space and only following other companies, like Google, Apple, etc.

Obviously for Nokia, a for-profit company, cutting as big slice out of the big Internet-Mobile-Money cake as possible is more important than supporting developers. Not as if their developer support was not great, but naturally getting money is of bigger importance. And it's beneficial for end-users, too, since they can enjoy content written in any of the most popular formats (Flash, now Silverlight, etc.). With their Nokia phone.

Tamas Simon (Sic) said...

If rumors/speculation are true about Apple buying Adobe then it would explain it, wouldn't it?

Anonymous said...

In theory the proliferation of platforms makes life harder for consumers because they have to consider what phone they have when selecting content, but that's no change from the current situation (with browser-based and installed apps) so it's not a greater problem than what we have now... just needs some intelligent server switching.

From Nokia's perspective I suspect they will stay with Adobe too, it would be stupid to discontinue a platform that is starting to achieve some success, and I'm sure they will enjoy the commercial opportunities playing sides against each other. The only downside for them is keeping all the different development runtimes integrated and bug-free across many form factors (not something they have always been very good at).

They can afford to support everything on the off-chance that something takes off, and if it turns out there are too many small platforms for developers to support then Nokia fall back to an arguably even stronger position - they have a 'good' browser on many shipped high-end phones and ubiquitous strong Java support on almost every handset that makes up their 40% market share.

For developers - well, there are still plenty of us who do develop apps and plenty of users for those apps whatever the current blogging zeitgeist, so sensible developers will stick with the platform(s) that address the mass market and dabble in the latest and greatest if there's a really compelling reason

Alexander Marktl said...

All those companies will debate so long about THE mobile platform until someone comes up with a simple browser based killer app that just works.
Then everybody will have predicted it ("... our studies always told us that people just want a simple interface, cough, Google, cough ...")

Unknown said...

Silverlight isn't really a platform/OS though (you were listing it as one, alongside Windows Mobile etc). It's a runtime to deliver media, just like FlashLite, sitting on top of the OS, so for developers it's just another tool to use for their applications. Read: more fragmentation. Oh dear.

I'm more 'shocked' about what that means for Adobe. They've royally messed up their head start with FlashLite and now they not only have Silverlight as a new rival on the desktop but on mobiles as well! If Microsoft do just a tiny bit better than Adobe promoting the technology, and getting it bundled with more OEMs, FlashLite will lose all that advantage they could have had. Yes, they are getting a bit more traction now, but FlashLite was launched 5 years ago...

Anonymous said...

I wish I am wrong, but... to me, your mistake is that you think of Nokia as one monolithic rock, while it is more closer to gang of moneymakers, who might have different opinion on same topic - and make you confused about what you see. Try to change your paradigm, and you will see Nokia in completely different light...