Nokia: all you need is (not) Steve

Nokia: all you need is (not) Steve

Summary: If the rumours are true and Nokia really is looking for someone to replace CEO Olli-Pekka Kallasvuo (usually referred to as OPK, for the obvious reason), then they're suffering from what I call Steveism (for the equally obvious reason); the belief that all you need is Steve.

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TOPICS: Windows
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If the rumours are true and Nokia really is looking for someone to replace CEO Olli-Pekka Kallasvuo (usually referred to as OPK, for the obvious reason), then they're suffering from what I call Steveism (for the equally obvious reason); the belief that all you need is Steve. If Nokia had a Steve Jobs of its own, runs the theory, all would be well and the company would be back dominating the phone market and delaying phone launches for a year while they argue with carriers over whose logo is going to be bigger on the handset.

The trouble is, when you add a Steve Jobs to most companies what you get is not an Apple but a Next (nice product, shame about the market share). If Microsoft had brought in Steve Jobs instead of Ray Ozzie or HP had brought in Steve Jobs instead of Mark Hurd or Yahoo had brought in Steve Jobs instead of bringing back Jerry Yang, it wouldn't have had the same success as Apple bringing back Steve. Steve Jobs coming back to Apple worked because it was Apple he came back to; a company with a lot of problems but also with enough employees who'd been hanging on waiting for it to become great again - and a company with a corporate memory of what a benevolent dictator can achieve. If Apple had had the internecine internal competition of Microsoft or the engineering-first attitude that Carly Fiorina didn't manage to destroy at HP or Nokia's odd mix of arrogance and paranoia or Yahoo's wilful ability to leave successful tools and sites to just chug along without any significant development, just adding Steve wouldn't have helped much.

Personally speaking, I always preferred to Motorola interface over the Nokia UI and I've been disappointed in Symbian since the early days of the S60 interface when I realised that every screen assumed I'd made a mistake by opening it. (Reading a text message? What's the one thing you're most likely to want to do? Reply, you say? How about Cancel. Writing an email? How about Cancel? If the two options on screen are always Menu and Cancel, the things you want to do the most are always more clicks away than with a better interface.) Nokia's tablets have always used too different a flavour of Linux for there to be enough apps to succeed and even flagship models like the N95 have disappointed. When Nokia has shown flashes of brilliance and insight - developing the first mobile sync and life logging tool with Nokia Lifeblog, implementing DLNA so you could stream music and pictures from your phone to your PC or connected TV, buying the Dopplr travel social network - it's fumbled it every time. Instead of opening up Lifeblog as a platform, Nokia kept it proprietary and let it languish and die (when I suggested making it open source or creating a plugin API the creator told me with a straight face that nobody would work with Nokia on it 'because they hate us'). The most common question on Dopplr is now 'why did Nokia buy Dopplr if they weren't going to develop it?' (answer, because they wanted the team that built it; Michael Halbherr, Nokia's head of 'location-based experiences' said at the Where 2.0 conference this year that they've all gone on to key positions in the company). And I never came across anyone who actually knew their phone could work with DLNA, let alone anyone who used the feature.

Sometimes it's timing; after several years of promises mobile Silverlight finally came out and Nokia had it before anyone else; just when everyone else is interested in HTML 5. Nokia decided at the beginning of this year "to make navigation a core feature of a phone, just like a camera" according to Halbherr; I think Google (and Apple, but mostly Google) has already done that. Open sourcing Symbian and pursuing a will-they, won't-they merger of Maemo and Moblin makes Meego only confuses the issue; if you want to develop for Nokia's phones, what platform should you actually commit to?

Nokia's real success has always been with sturdy, workaday phones that make calls and have a long battery life. When Motorola spent a huge amount of time and effort building a phone with an e-ink screen, weeks of battery life and an interface with no text at all - just easy to understand icons - for the developing world, Nokia outsold it ten times over by shipping a cheap phone with a built-in torch. It's never translated that strength into significant smartphone success, certainly not in the US (although its market share isn't as dismal as you might think in the rest of the world) and it just doesn't seem to be able to get people excited about its phones. There must be a market for phones that do a little less, cost a little less and have what now counts as the basics (music, navigation, gaming and Web) without all the big-screen power of the hero handsets - but if Qualcomm can bring BREW back from the dead Nokia still has competition.

Assuming that a Steve could fix all of that assumes that a new leader could come up with a successful strategy - and make everyone in Nokia agree with it. There are plenty of strategists out there, but not many dictators - and even fewer companies who can thrive under one. M

Topic: Windows

Simon Bisson

About Simon Bisson

Simon Bisson is a freelance technology journalist. He specialises in architecture and enterprise IT. He ran one of the UK's first national ISPs and moved to writing around the time of the collapse of the first dotcom boom. He still writes code.

Mary Branscombe

About Mary Branscombe

Mary Branscombe is a freelance tech journalist. Mary has been a technology writer for nearly two decades, covering everything from early versions of Windows and Office to the first smartphones, the arrival of the web and most things inbetween.

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  • "(when I suggested making it open source or creating a plugin API the creator told me with a straight face that nobody would work with Nokia on it 'because they hate us')."

    Haha Nice bit of healthy optimism there, he's names not Marvin is it?
    CA-aba1d
  • it was an eye-opener to see the way Nokia thought about the world; there are more than a few ways in which Nokia resembles Microsoft but for paranoia they have everyone beat!
    M
    Simon Bisson and Mary Branscombe