“Nokia’s Software Problem”, proclaimed an article in Forbes yesterday, that gave voice to excited Silicon Valley adulation over the can’t-do-anything-wrong iPhone.
The article contained a report on a recent roundtable organised by Michael Arrington. Arrington himself is quoted in the article as pronouncing,
“I believe that Nokia and Symbian are irrelevant companies at this point.”
Part of the problem, apparently, is that:
“Nokia sells hundreds of phone models and supports three different operating systems. No two phones work exactly the same way. Simple models like Nokia’s 2610 aren’t compatible with the Symbian software used on Nokia’s best handsets, such as the N95. Applications written for the iPhone, by contrast, will run on every iPhone.”
Now there’s such a thing as being a fan of the iPhone. That’s understandable. Indeed, there are many great features to the iPhone. It’s proved to be an impressive device. What’s much less understandable is when this fanship extends into super-fanship of the type reported in this article, which makes people blind to:
- the genuine merits of devices from other manufacturers (such as Nokia);
- the likelihood that these manufacturers will come out with impressive new devices.
(I almost used a less polite word than “super-fanship” here, but hey, let’s try to be objective.)
Let’s get real. Of course there are big differences between different Nokia phones. Nokia supplies phones catering to very wide varieties of taste, usage model, and pocket. It’s no surprise that different software is used to power these different devices. In contrast, up till now, there’s really only one kind of iPhone. That makes it relatively easy for developers to write apps that work on (err) every kind of iPhone. However, the current iPhone isn’t to everyone’s taste. Some people love the big screen form factor, and are happy that there’s no keyboard. Others would definitely prefer different form factors and UI mechanisms. Others again would prefer a far less expensive phone. If/when Apple produce a variety of phones comparable to that produced by Nokia, it will be interesting to see exactly how portable the different applications remain.
I have another reservation about the arguments in the Forbes article. The email capabilities of the N95 are criticised as being less immediately usable than those of the iPhone. However, a fairer comparison in this case would be with those Nokia phones that specialise in email connectivity. (Remember, there is more than one kind of Nokia phone…). The recently released E66 and E71 would be better comparators. (See eg here for one review of the E71.)
It’s true that we can anticipate very interesting times, as forthcoming new Nokia phones reach the market in the months ahead. Naturally there will be impressive new smartphones from several other suppliers too (running both Symbian and non-Symbian operating systems). We can expect new kinds of user interface models, as different manufacturers build and riff on the innovations produced by their competitors – and bring out some totally new ideas of their own. In achieving these new effects, Symbian-powered phones can take advantage of the following features that are missing (so far) from the iPhone stable: Flash, Java, and the new ScreenPlay graphics architecture.
Looking slightly further afield, the new levels of openness enabled by the Symbian Foundation should have the additional benefits of providing new routes to market for Symbian technology, as well as more rapid collaborative development. If that’s a “software problem”, it’s a problem of the most attractive sort!