Nokia's big plans on the Qt

With the acquisition of Trolltech, Nokia has made its largest bet yet on changing the course of the industry

Sometimes, an acquisition fills a gap in a portfolio. Sometimes, it closes down the competition, or snags a useful chunk of market share. Rarely, it changes the game for everyone — but that's what's happening here.

Nokia has seen a future of shrinking margins and saturated markets. It doesn't like that and claims the answer is for it to become an applications company. That would seem to put it in strong competition with its main customers, the network operators. They too need to become applications and service providers, correctly seeing their bread-and-butter carrier revenue disappearing into commodity connectivity.

But Nokia's acquisition of Trolltech's Qt cross-platform technology is a move designed to change the rules the mobile industry has taken for granted. The biggest problem facing mobile applications is a lack of compatibility: they are enormously difficult to create, sell and support across the endlessly multiplying combinations of handsets, operating systems and physical configurations. Through its openness and strong ties to Linux, as well as its single-minded dedication to pragmatism in design, Qt 4 has the best history and best chance of any development platform aimed at creating a truly unified environment across mobile systems and beyond. With Nokia's weight behind it, the odds are even better.

It is significant that Nokia specifically mentioned Windows as an intended target, not to overcome but for adoption. Like a judo player, Nokia is using its opponent's strength against it. Windows Mobile's presence in the market is as part of the closed edifice of Microsoft's OS and applications stack — none of which can migrate out to an open platform. With Qt 4, the open platform, and everything on it, can migrate.

Nokia's bet is that the sheer size of the Qt 4-based market will be a decisive inducement for everyone else, handset makers, operators, and pure applications players alike, and that the explosion in compatibility will amplify the market for everyone much as happened on the desktop when MS-DOS anointed the PC architecture. But unlike then, Qt 4 will break forever the idea that one part of the market can seal itself off as a profitable mini-universe, an idea as archaic in the 21st century as the feudalism it so closely resembles.

Much can go wrong. Write-once, run-anywhere code is easier in PowerPoint than processors. Nokia must balance the needs of its existing developer community and their existing business models with its need to transform. There will be unforeseen interactions with other open-source mobile movements, in which politics will play just as big a part as pragmatic technology. And, of course, Nokia could itself try to form a fiefdom of control and tribute.

The company is too smart for that. It knows the stakes are too high. For the rest of us, there is little as exciting and promising as a world where wireless makes enterprise IT easier, cheaper and better.