Thursday, 26 November 2009

How to Lose the Market and Alienate Customers

With my Windows Mobile 6.1 mobile phone now on its death bed – it started resetting itself involuntarily several times a day – the question of what its replacements is going to be is more relevant than ever.
It’s obvious what it is not going to be. It’s not going to be Windows Mobile! I can actually get my phone fixed under my credit card’s extended warranty policy, but that will only mean that I’ll have a working piece of shit in my hands (and pocket, most of the time) instead of a dead one.
I have already reported how it seems like the iPhone is the best of the smartphone lot. It seemed the best, but I cannot say that I’d be happy with the purchase of an iPhone: It’s a lot of money to pay for a very artificially restricted gadget (effectively, $1200 for a 16gb iPhone GS with a two year Virgin Mobile plan incorporating 300mb data allowance). And you hear of the restrictions every day in the news: you hear how Skype has been suffocated, you hear how the big saint Steve Jobs bullies a small time developer into submission, and you wonder why such a flashy device is still not flash enabled and still boasts the copy & paste facilities its latest operating system upgrade offers as anything but an embarrassing fix. Apple, in short, is an evil monopoly that makes the most of its position; it’s just that unlike, say, Microsoft during the Vista era, they actually do have generally good products in their line-up.
So I put myself on a mini crusade to find the iPhone killer. I thought I found one in the Nokia N900 and I spent tons of precious time researching the product. However, what I did find was not an iPhone killer, but rather a company – Nokia – that has simply lost its way. If Nokia represents Apple’s competition in the smartphone market then it’s no wonder Apple has become the market's supreme commander.

Let me make it clear. If Nokia’s own reports, videos and images are to be considered credible enough, then its N900 is a mega iPhone killer. Perhaps not in selling figures, but definitely in technical capabilities: It has a Firefox based browser with Flash and all the capabilities you’re used to from your normal PC Firefox (including add-ons) but with a touch screen that allows zooming and tabbing and a lot of nice usability things that so far only the iPhone was capable of delivering. It already has 32gb of memory but you can expand that using a memory card (something Apple won’t allow). It is unlocked, so if you’re overseas you can stick a local SIM in and your phone and cut down global roaming costs.
I’ll stop listing the N900’s attributes at this point because they’re not the main point I’m trying to convey. Let’s just say that it’s a mighty phone, by far the best out there. Add to that it being open sourced, based on the Maemo distribution of Linux, and you can appreciate that unlike Apple forcing you to an unbreakable wedding with iTunes, Nokia allows you the freedom to do as you see fit.
I could only find two shortcomings with the N900 phone: First, you can’t sync the N900 to Google the way you can sync Google Calendar and contacts to a Blackberry, iPhone or Windows Mobile. Second, Nokia’s applications front, Ovi, is incredibly inferior to Apple’s; there simply is no comparison. Yet, if you ask me, who needs an application shop when you have a full blown web browser at your hands? When it comes to the bigger application, such as GPS navigation, Nokia has basic stuff built in but the iPhone doesn’t, while both charge a lot for the full blown stuff (enough to convince me to just buy the Tomtom Start for $180).

So where does the N900 fail? Well, it doesn’t fail anywhere; it’s Nokia that fails it.
First they failed it by announcing it will be released in October 2009 and gradually postponing its actual release; current rumors talk about a February 2010 release.
Then they failed it by announcing the N900 will not be sold in Australia, thus demonstrating that Nokia doesn’t want to sell its phones to the consumers but rather to the mobile providers. On their part, the mobile providers are not exactly in love with a phone that has such great VOIP capabilities to cannibalize their business.
On its own, the lack of official Aussie imports is not a big deal: I can buy the phone in Amazon for $550 (USD) and have it brought over to Australia using Shipito, a service that already provides me with a mailing address of my own in the USA. The problem is warranty: if things go wrong, I’d have to post the phone to the USA and use Shipito to get it back again. The problem is magnified by the overall lack of reliability of these small gadgets, as demonstrated by my old MP3 player and my current mobile phone (both, interestingly enough, running Windows Mobile) and as demonstrated by the tons of flak Nokia has been receiving on its current flagship smartphone, the N97 (a model everyone recognizes as a failure). The issue is made worse through reports from N900 test users of microphones not working and screens broken on delivery.
But then Nokia threw the N900 the killer blow through a notification announcing two punches. The first of the two said that anyone who wants to develop Maemo applications needs a million dollar liability insurance. There goes the option of having an rich application environment ala iTunes’ catalog of application numbering in the six digits! Effectively, this implies there is no future for Maemo; in turn it means there will never be a reason for Google to provide the facilities to sync Maemo phones with its Google Calendar, to name but one example.
As far my own N900 prospects are concerned, any ideas I may have still had of buying the phone evaporated with Nokia’s second announcement, saying they will limit updates and applications based on geographical location. Given the phone will not be officially sold in Australia this represents a risk I just cannot take. For Nokia, however, it represents the complete inability of a major company to recognize the internet has unified this world of ours to a point where geographical separation makes no sense to anyone but old dinosaurs like the movie studios who still deploy regional coding on their stuff and then wonder why what they refer to as piracy is so rife.
Nokia, it seems, belongs firmly in the company of dinosaurs. If it continues on this path, Nokia will soon be extinct.

So there you go. Unless my current phone does the unexpected and manages to survive until Android comes up with a worthy model, you will soon be looking at a very reluctant owner of an iPhone.

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