Nokia: Running in molasses

Every time I think about Nokia and Symbian, I can't help picturing a man knee-deep in molasses, running as fast as he can. He's working up a sweat, thrashing and stumbling forward, and proudly points out that for someone knee-deep in molasses he's making really good time.

That thought came to me several times during a briefing day that Nokia and the new Symbian Foundation held recently in San Francisco. A recurring theme was a deeply earnest discussion of how big and complex their business is, and how proud they are that despite the complexity they can make forward progress. For example:

Charles Davies, CTO of the new foundation, pointed out to us that Symbian OS has about 450,000 source files. That's right, half a million files. They're organized into 85 "packages," all of which have been charted out in a diagram that will be posted soon on the foundation's website. Davies was proud that the diagram is in SVG format, so you can zoom in on it and see that "this is an architecture that's not just a plateful of spaghetti."

The diagram looks a bit like a plateful of very colorful spaghetti (although in fairness to Charles, that's true of every OS architecture diagram I've ever seen). Anyway, the big takeaway was how huge the OS is.

Davies talked about the substantial challenges involved in open sourcing a code base that large. He said it will take up to another two years before all of the code is released under the Eclipse license. In the meantime, a majority of the code on launch day of the foundation will be in a more restrictive license that requires registration and a payment of $1,500 for access. There's also a small amount of third party copyrighted code within Symbian, and the foundation is trying to either get the rights to that code, or figure a way to make it available in binary format.

Those are all typical problems when a project is moving to open source, and the upshot of them is that Symbian won't be able to get the full benefits of its move to open source until quite a while after the foundation is launched. What slows the process down is the amount of code that Symbian and Nokia have to move. I believe that Symbian OS is probably the largest software project ever taken from closed to open source. If you've ever dealt with moving code to open source, you'll know how staggeringly complex the legal reviews are. What Nokia and Symbian are doing is heroic, scary, and incredibly tedious. It's like, well, running in molasses.

Lee Williams, Nokia's software platform SVP who is moving over to become head of the Symbian foundation, picked up on the theme of massiveness. He said the OS is on 200 million devices, with 200 device types shipped and another 100 in development. With support for five different baseband modems, seven different processor architectures, symmetric multiprocessing, and a broad set of displays, "your options are dramatic and huge."

This sort of infrastructure is needed, he said, because IT, telecom, and the Internet "have merged almost completely.... It's the perfect storm of convergence. There's almost nothing it can't eat or it won't use." He compared its importance to the creation of movable type, color palettes, and the Renaissance.

He noted that some people think the Symbian Foundation is a response to Android and other competitive moves, but said the company can't move that fast, and actually the change was in the works long before Google announced its software.

At dinner, I had a chance to chat with one of the Nokia managers. He was kind enough to let me play around with a pre-release N97 (more on that below), and the discussion gravitated to the iPhone. He told me how excited he is by the many new products Nokia has in the labs but can't talk about yet, and expressed some frustration that people don't understand why it takes time for Nokia to respond to changes in the market. He described Nokia as a giant ship. "It takes a long time to turn it, but when we do..." he said ominously, and then reminded me that Netscape once had a lead over Microsoft before it was crushed.

The problem with talking to the folks from Nokia is that you're never sure what they believe vs. what's the official story they're trying to put out in the market. They're disciplined enough that they can stay on message quite well, and in most conversations they focus on talking about what they're doing rather than asking for feedback or getting into a two-way conversation.

So I'll assume that Nokia was being serious. In that case, let's look at some financials from 1997 (Netscape vs. Microsoft) and 2007 (Apple vs. Nokia):

All figures in millions of dollars.

Don't worry too much about revenue and net income; those are usually tied up by the ongoing operations of each company. The line I want you to focus on is cash. That is your ammunition -- the extra resource available to fund a big marketing campaign, or a new product development program, or an acquisition of an innovative new technology. Microsoft had 46 times more cash than Netscape in 1997, and it wasn't seriously threatened in any of its other core businesses. It could, and did, spend Netscape into the ground.

Apple has about the same cash hoard as Nokia. Much more importantly, Apple can focus that cash on a narrower battlefront. Its situation relative to Windows is relatively safe. Although Microsoft can never be ignored, it is innovating so slowly that Apple can take some profit from its PC business to fund other things. The music player business is also stable; although it's not growing like it used to, no one has come close to matching the integration of the iPod and iTunes. So Apple is free to spend huge wads of cash to establish its new iPhone business. It can pick the countries and vertical usages it wants to dominate, and as long as it doesn't do too many things at once, it can outspend almost any competitor.

Nokia, on the other hand, has battlefields everywhere:
--In mobile phones it's fighting Samsung, LG, and SonyEricsson, and a badly wounded (therefore desperate) Motorola.
--In entertainment smartphones it's fighting Apple.
--In communicators it's fighting RIM.
--In OS it's fighting Google, Microsoft, etc.
--In online services it's fighting Google, Yahoo, Microsoft, etc.

As Nokia EVP Anssi Vanjoki put it recently (link):

There’s a company that says they can index the world; we are going to go deeper - we are going to coordinate the world.

Sweet! He calls out Google and says he'll beat them in their core business. It's a noble effort. I love the company's ambition. But does Nokia have the resources to fight all those battles at once?

If the folks at Nokia really think they are well positioned to crush Apple, they need to go re-read The Innovator's Dilemma. Being big is not a benefit in a rapidly-changing market with emerging segments. A big company can't respond nimbly to that sort of change, and the segments attacked by new entrants are usually too small to justify huge investment by an incumbent. So new challengers like Apple and RIM pop up all around you, you gradually shed little chunks of market share, and you complain that people don't understand how powerful your core business is.

I am not at all saying that Nokia is doomed. They are an outstanding company, with smart people, a great brand, and enormous strengths. But they need to understand that turning the battleship a little faster won't win the war. Nokia's smartphone competitors are not standing in molasses; they won't stay still long enough for the 16-inch guns to be pointed at them. More importantly, the competitors on the services side breed like vampire rabbits. By the time you blow away a clutch of them, three dozen more have hatched and are sucking blood from the other side of the ship.

To succeed in smartphones, I think Nokia needs to start creating the sort of integrated software + hardware solutions that the smartphone winners excel at. And on the services side, it needs to start breeding its own killer rabbits (small entrepreneurial experiments that move fast and die quickly if they fail). So far what I think I see looks like a more design-savvy version of the smartphone business of Samsung (throw hardware at the wall and see what sticks) coupled with an effort to create a 16-inch cannon of services.

That's probably not enough to win in the long run. Nokia still has a lot of time to get it right. But do they really understand what needs to change? I can't tell, because all I usually get from them is monologues on how big their business is and how much cool stuff they have in the lab.


A few other tidbits from the day...

N97: Second cousin twice removed of the Revo. I got a chance to play with a pre-release N97, Nokia's upcoming qwerty phone. The screen slides sideways to reveal a little keyboard underneath.

The look and size of the device reminded me a little bit of the old Psion Revo, although it's a pretty distant echo. The sliding process of the screen has a very nice feel to it; it's the sort of physical detail that Nokia excels at. Even in a pre-release state, the phone felt nice and solid in my hand.

The software needs a lot more work, but they admitted that. It's a pre-release device. No worries at this point.

As for the keyboard, I thought it was mediocre. The keys, and especially the microscopic letters on them, are a little too small for my taste (I have big thumbs). Typing was slower than I expect on a thumb keyboard. I'd put it about on a par with the Blackberry Storm (that's the Blackberry with the on-screen keyboard). The Storm has bigger letters than the N97, and unlike David Pogue I like the tactile feedback when you tap on its screen, although it is not as good as a real keyboard.

So the N97 has real keys but they're too tiny, and the Storm has bigger keys but they're not real. The tiebreaker is the software -- the Storm is notoriously unstable (it took me about 40 seconds to crash it). I think neither product is ready for the market yet. Unfortunately for RIM, the Storm is already shipping.

The destiny of Trolltech. About a year ago, when Nokia purchased Trolltech, I wondered what they were going to do with it (link). Now we know -- Trolltech's Qt software layer is going to become a graphics layer for Symbian. No word on what happens to Trolltech's other products.

That's nice, but what's it good for? Symbian is adding symmetric multiprocessing to the OS. In a session discussing the change, a member of the audience asked what you'd use symmetric multiprocessing for on a mobile device.

Long pause. "Well, some games use it..." Another long pause.

This is the difficulty of taking a technology-only approach when talking to developers. Although software developers are technophiles, what they really care about is what sort of cool products you can enable them to build. If your feature doesn't let them do something cool, they won't care about it.

(By the way, according to an article here, the benefit will be in performance tuning and battery life -- critical to handset vendors, but sanitation issues to application developers.)

Some alternate opinions. Some other people briefed by Nokia are not as worried as me about the molasses thing. In the interest of balance, here are a few examples:

Commentary from SymbianOne (link).

Fabrizio over at Funambol (link).

SonyEricsson on the event (link). (Never mind, that was a report from 2003. I am so embarrassed.)


Anonymous said...

What disturbs me most about Nokia is that they have some basic and fundamental usability challenges that they are ignoring in favour of fighting a war with other manufacturers. It's understandable that they want to tell us about the magnificent new OS that they have coming down the line, but I don't see any lessons taken to heart in those OSes.

They also have a ways to go in their US distribution networks. I attempted to purchase a Nokia 5800 from their store in Chicago over the phone (since, as is par for the course for Nokia, it's not available online) and essentially they wanted me to hand over information sufficient for an unscrupulous employee to forge my identity (back and front of driver's licence, back and front of a credit card). Naturally, I refused, and complained about it, only to have all my posts erased all across the web. This kind of attitude doesn't inspire much confidence in me - or in others whom I spoke with. I'm sure they will sell out of the 5800s, but every legitimate sale they block is one less potential evangelist for their device.

Anyway, after a decade plus of Nokia devices - or several thousand dollars, if you want to look at it that way, I switched last year to an iPhone, and despite everything that I suffer as a non AT&T subscriber, it's worth it. No more Nokias in my future - they just don't "get" it, and I can't help but feel Olli is responsible for this slow long darkness that Nokia is descending into.

Rachel Luxemburg said...

best. turn. of. phrase. ever:

breed like vampire rabbits

Anonymous said...

How about if Nokia launches a netbook using Symbian OS that might assist a large direction change (N810 meets Psion Series 5mx).

Related link:

David Wood said...


There's lots of food for thought here. And not just the sweet and sticky stuff...

(In the old days at Symbian, we used to talk about "escaping the treacle", but I guess "molasses" is pretty similar.)

I've tried to address a few of your points in my own posting here.

By the way, it's bracing to see the reminders about the ideas of Clayton Christensen. I've had his "Seeing what's next" queued up on my Audible wishlist for download and re-listening for quite a few months. There's powerful stuff there!

// David Wood, Symbian

David Mery said...

> Some alternate opinions. Some other people briefed by Nokia are not as worried as me about the molasses thing.


> SonyEricsson on the event (link).

This links to an SEDW review of the 2003 SPE :-)

If this year's edition of the SPE is similar to the 2003 edition, it's not molasses but solid concrete!

br -d

Eduardo Cruz said...

Good post, the demise of Nokia is quite evident to me since a while ago.

A minimal smart movement for nokia to do would be to adopt Android ASAP and stop trying to battle the OS fight when they are ages behind of competition and have no past record on success on that area, but as many other big companies as history tells us, self-destruction is the only path forward...

Management blindness in keeping investors and image in good health by reporting never ending rising profits is the cancer inside most corporate god's like Nokia without direction or focus. And let me tell you, this cancer has no cure.

Your article although complete has missed one important battle. Nokia's self internal battle.

Inside nokia three kingdoms have always been fighting for the hardware and software features available on phones, that is, N series team, E series team and the C(rap) series team (jjk).

These internal battles are the explanation of why until not so long ago you were able to buy a pricey Nokia E series (ie: e65) and find out that had no stereo and even the bluetooth lacked of A2DP extensions and several other software annoyances.

While these dues where fighting like dogs over 10 phone features and 10 miserable software components inside the s60 OS, the rest of the market was creating innovation and presenting next gen software with real value.

In short for Nokia:

Cut the cancer, fire most of your management responsible for your current situation.

Stop the non-sense N and E series agony, get Android on board. (yes and you will save shit loads of cash too)

Accept a couple of years of downturn and concentrate on doing things well, ONE AT THE TIME.

Stop trying to be an internet player, you aren't one and you will never be one unless you do well "1" thing and escalate from there.

Personal request: please would you enable your damn usb port so it charges the phone? please? (common sense is knocking)

Anonymous said...


Thanks for the very interesting article. First of all I find it hard to believe that Symbian is a more complex proposition to open source than Sun had with Solaris?

Nokia can move slower since Sony Ericsson and Motorola in particular haven't been able to execute (at least in Europe) and Palm imploded in a spectacular fashion.

LG and Samsung need to seriously step up their game on the user experience and product design of their phones.

I currently have a Nokia E90, whilst the software is frustrating (you can't put more than a 1,000 contacts on the phone, it hangs every few days etc). If anything software and design in the handheld and mobile space seems to have slid backwards on the basic things like PIM applications.

However there isn't a viable laptop alternative out there to beat it so I can avoid lugging my MacBook Pro everywhere.

The iPhone's screen is too small and the carrier deals are too onerous.

Michael Mace said...

Interesting comments, folks. Thank you.

Anonymous wrote:

>>They also have a ways to go in their US distribution networks.

To really play in the US you need both CDMA and GSM phones, and Nokia decided not to make a push in CDMA. SO they are limited to AT&T and T-Mobile. But T-Mobile is too weak to give a strong base in the US, and AT&T is in bed with Apple. That leaves Nokia without an easy distribution channel here.

In my opinion, they need to find a way to establish an iconic phone in the US, something that's different and popular enough that it would jump-start the Nokia brand. And they need to pair that with a more open channel. How about doing something special for the upcoming WiMax network?

But I'm not sure they really care about the US market anyway. India and China are a lot bigger, and easier to penetrate.

Anonymous wrote:

>>How about if Nokia launches a netbook using Symbian OS that might assist a large direction change (N810 meets Psion Series 5mx).

It would be at a huge disadvantage to the netbooks that have access to the full Windows software base. But I'd love to see it, and I get the impression that the Symbian folks are more open to the idea of non-phones on their OS than they were a few years ago.

David Wood wrote:

>>There's lots of food for thought here. And not just the sweet and sticky stuff...

David, you write some of the most courteous rebuttals on the Internet. Nice post, and I encourage folks to go over and read it.

Blogger David Mery wrote:

>>This links to an SEDW review of the 2003 SPE :-)

Ohhhhhh, man. I am so embarrassed.

Thanks for pointing it out. I wondered why SonyEricsson was still talking about the P800...

Eduardo Cruz wrote:

>>A minimal smart movement for nokia to do would be to adopt Android ASAP and stop trying to battle the OS fight

Interesting comments. Nokia seems to be pretty hostile to Google these days, so them adopting Android is hard to picture.

Anonymous Ged Carroll wrote:

>>I find it hard to believe that Symbian is a more complex proposition to open source than Sun had with Solaris?

Hmmmmm, good point. I hadn't thought about that one. I'm not sure how to determine which one was a bigger task.

>>If anything software and design in the handheld and mobile space seems to have slid backwards on the basic things like PIM applications.

Yeah, I was talking with a friend today about people who are still clinging to their Treos for that very reason. It's a huge, huge, huge shame that no one's evolving the old Palm OS code and applications base. There as a lot of good stuff there, relevant even today.

Anonymous said...

I'd rather liken the Symbian Foundation architecture diagram to lasagne rather than spaghetti. It's still pasta, but it's more organised, and layered with lots of filling.

For reference, the Symbian-only diagram can be found at:

Eduardo Cruz said...


Nokia knows how to assemble mobile phones at a hardware level. Nokia is not and has never been a software house. All their softwares are: Unfinished, Unpolished, Unmaintanined.

As an example:

They lock software to a phone, meaning, no new functionalities are ever introduced to a phone you have bought. That is it. Want more? Buy a new one.

The new N97 which is going to be launched in 6 month time goes the same path, you just need to look at the quick reviews available online to figure out that the OS is horrible and way far behind anything available today on touch.

Why they are still trying to push symbian? Only they must know but they are several years behind of competition at something they are no masters (software).

Michael pointed well that for some reason Nokia sees google as an enemy, that really escapes my comprehension. But comes by no surprise after seeing repeated attempts from Nokia to take on internet related markets, the most recent one i can remember is when Nokia tried to get itself into advertisement delivery on mobile phones and obviously it giaganticly failed at even starting.

Some other other recent news on Nokia's comments pointed on them dropping from trying on enterprise email (Blackberry wins) and focusing on personal email (there we go google again).

Michael, can't your company pitch and supply some management training sessions on "focusing" ? I think they need this more than the oxygen they breath.

ps: I thought alcohol was super expensive up there in Finland/norway. Are they just earning too much or alcohol pricing is just a myth? ;)

Anonymous said...

I agree (not 100% but something similar) on almost all your considerations in the latest comment.

Just wanted to share some thoughts about Nokia-joining-OHA thread.



Anonymous said...

Thank you for that, I linked from Nokia daily news.
As a Nokia user, a blogger and someone who feels the the iPhone is a swell device, (for my parents) I think that these thoughts are going around in the US with people who are starting to wake up from the "matrix" of being tied down by the carriers. I think that although apple is in bed with AT&T that should only strengthen Nokia's position for selling "unlocked" phones... sounds wrong saying that, I'd prefer the one that I heard of them being called "born free" once people get that in their heads, THAT should be the campaign. I ask people if they buy their cars from the DOT... then why buy your phone from the carriers? I just wrote about similar thoughts and think that there is a chance, they are fighting a multi-theatre war, but the difference is that in war, you have one general for each front, It just seems to not be the case... In naval terms, sure, you've got battleships, but you've also got destroyers too, light, quick and can pack a punch till the big boys get there...

Anonymous said...

Nokia is almost perfect example supporting ideas in "Only the Paranoid Survive" by Andy Groove and "Skate to Where the Money Will Be" by Clayton Christensen.

Nokia is great in making phones. However, the world is changing together with the mobile handset value chain, which moves from vertical to horizontal integration. Hardware is commoditized while the value moves to software and connected services. This is exactly the area where Nokia has wrong company DNA and human capital.

After watching Nokia moves in the past two years, listening to their execs and seeing the products, it's evident that Nokia have tough times ahead.

It's a pity. Nokia used to be great company.

gibtang said...

Great article, as usual. Michael. You missed out 1 more front which Nokia has fought and lost and that is the N-Gage front where they tried to take on Sony's PSP and Nintendo's DS as portable gaming devices/phones. With the old N-Gage battle lost years ago, Nokia is mounting another lost battle with the N-Gage platform which was launched with some hooha quite some time back, but I have barely heard a peep out of it since then which is why my company stayed clear of the Nokia N-Gage platform for game development. Nokia seriously needs to regain it's focus and forge strategic partnerships instead of trying to do everything in-house.

Michael Mace said...

Thanks for the comments! Good stuff.

Anonymous wrote:

>>I'd rather liken the Symbian Foundation architecture diagram to lasagne rather than spaghetti.

Fair enough, and thanks for the pointer to the diagram. I looked for it on the Foundation site, but it's not up there yet.

meedabyte wrote:

>>"To succeed in smartphones, I think Nokia needs to start creating the sort of integrated software + hardware solutions that the smartphone winners excel at." Are you meaning something similar to Apple?

Or RIM. Or Gameboy. Something where the software/services and hardware are codeveloped and carefully coordinated to solve a specific problem for a specific type of user. I think history shows those are the most successful mobile devices.

>>I don't see Nokia doing things like this. What do you think?

Given the amount that Nokia has invested in Symbian, I would be shocked if they jumped to any other OS in the next couple of years.

Having said that, there have been persistent rumors that they are thinking about moving to Linux. So I could see them doing that in a couple of years if the Symbian thing flounders. But even in that case, I don't think they would endorse Google's version of Linux. They seem to have decided they hate Google. Don't know why. Maybe for the same reason Willie Sutton hated banks.

Eduardo Cruz wrote:

>>Michael, can't your company pitch and supply some management training sessions on "focusing" ? I think they need this more than the oxygen they breath.

I'd love to do it.

Actually, there are a few people at Nokia who are, on a one-on-one basis, extremely open to having a dialog. And I give them a lot of credit that they don't send lynch mobs out to visit you when you criticize them online, unlike some fruit-flavored computing companies we all know.

My issue is more with these exec forums Nokia does where they talk at you. That's not the most effective way to engage Silicon Valley. All any of us can do about that is post to our weblogs and hope somebody listens.

MobileDan wrote:

>>I think that although apple is in bed with AT&T that should only strengthen Nokia's position for selling "unlocked" phones...

I would so much love to see them succeed at that. But it would take a big investment in marketing here, and it'd have to be marketing that actually appeals to Americans. That has been a challenge for Nokia, which tends to market the image it likes rather than an image that actually appeals to folks in this country (link ). It's the not-listening thing again; do you see the pattern?

>>then why buy your phone from the carriers?

Because the carrier gives you a 70% discount on the phone. Americans are cheap, and most of them don't have enough of an emotional attachment to their phone to pay several hundred dollars for it. Even the iPhone sold a lot better once it got the AT&T subsidy.

As a phone industry veteran put it to me the other day, the only reason the operators do phone subsidies is because they work.

gibtang wrote:

>>You missed out 1 more front which Nokia has fought and lost and that is the N-Gage front

Dang, you're right. I have stopped even thinking about N-Gage, which is improper because Nokia hasn't stopped trying.

I should have asked the Symbian folks if the N-Gage APIs would be built into Symbian OS. Does anyone know the answer?

Anonymous said...

This is the first time I’m giving comment in your blog. Your article is quite impressive. Nokia is an outstanding company of mobile handset. N97 is simply great!! All N series of Nokia support Symbian.

Anonymous said...

Sorry, but one of my pet hates with online content is when there is no date for each post. Especially ridiculous with financial sites, but tech is probably next in the list of topics that REALLY need to be dated. I really don't care what TIME it was posted, but I do care what day, week, month or even YEAR it was posted.
It makes some posts totally useless, as one can't relate what is being said to the zeitgeist at that time. The only way is to "hack" it and look at posting dates of comments.

Michael Mace said...

I hear you, anonymous. But you don't have to use the comments to find the date of a post -- it's in the URL of the post, right up on top of your browser. The only post that's not dated is the front page of the blog, and you know content there is recent.

I don't show dates on my posts because most of the stuff I write about isn't time-bound -- for example, my most popular post of all time is on American vs. European mobile phone use, and it's several years old.

When I started this blog, I found that most people assume blog posts are irrelevant once they're more than a month old. The traffic to "old" but still relevant posts drops dramatically when they have a date on top. So I cut out the date, and the traffic pattern changed -- a lot.

I know that irritates some folks, and for that I apologize.

Anonymous said...

U.S. commentators are way too negative on Nokia.

All this stuff about hardware is commodity is so far off base it's not credible.

One thing Nokia does very well is built solid phones.

Anonymous said...

Btw, Qt is alive in kicking in Nokia. We just LGPL'd Qt for everyone to use (Qt for Windows, Linux/X11 and Mac, Qt Embedded for Linux and WinCE and soon to be S60).

The Trolltech team ended up as Qt Software, where we are supporting both Nokia and external customers.