Several people have asked me to put my thoughts down on Nokia’s new partnership with Microsoft. Twitter just isn’t the place for it; several 140-characters-or-less postings were met with responses quite distant from where I was going. I’ll try to say something useful and coherent– but keep in mind this will be an opinion piece. Very personal. And lengthy.
To understand my take on things you need to understand where I come from. Six years ago I was perfectly happy without a cell phone. I had no need for one, even despised and sometimes pitied people enslaved to them. And smartphones? I dismissed the idea entirely. What would I do with a “computer in my palm”? How smart could a phone be?
Then a strange thing happened. I applied for a job with the world’s largest cell phone maker, a position that looked too cool to let pass. It involved quality… research…process… data… a lab… and a factory. My kind of playground! Miraculously, they hired me, partly because I had no cell phone expertise. I could be objective. Point out where the king had no clothing.
Working in that factory was the happiest time of my professional life.
And as I grew more competent and comfortable in the field of mobile phones, I came to understand that it wasn’t just about self-involved people annoying others nearby with their loud, proud conversations. It wasn’t even about seeing who could drive the best while texting behind the wheel.
It was about connecting people.
And six years ago I wasn’t an open source evangelist, either. I worked in a medical products laboratory and did some serious software development for product test purposes, using of all things, Microsoft tools. Excel and VB.Net in particular. I even wrote an application that automated the conversion of electric motor test data to marketing charts and tables in minutes, replacing a manual job that had taken days. I was good at that sort of thing. And I’ve always been pleased with Microsoft’s development solutions.
So I was in for something big and different when a few years later I was named the US factory quality engineer for the Nokia 770. I was blown away by the product alone, but as I became more familiar with what it could do, I was truly impressed with its potential. Suddenly the idea of a computer in my palm was no longer this abstract concept, but something I could see, feel, do. And it ran Linux.
Linux at that time was something else I thought of in abstract terms. To me it was this big collaborative geek project largely designed to keep Microsoft honest– and usually failing at that. But now I had it in my palm and saw it was capable. I could install a VPN client on it and access the databases I managed over the air. I could free up our quality auditors from fighting over a few shared PCs. And that was just the start!
The coolest thing though was that the 770 Came With Community. One that looked to Nokia for guidance and support. One that dreamed bigger than my employer did. One that didn’t seem to mind that I was a Linux newbie with a largely Microsoft background. I was a self-annointed envoy to the mothership; good enough!
The Maemo community was an exciting place. I saw a lot more acceptance there than I had at other mostly-virtual organizations. Certainly a great deal of can-do spirit.
And Nokia was a can-do company– at least, among the rank and file. I didn’t realize it at the time, but there was a stubborn crust at the top, baked over a thick, resistant middle filling. Maybe the average employee was can-do because he had to.
Regardless, Maemo was underfunded and underappreciated within Nokia’s walls, and ultimately the open source science project was displaced for MeeGo.
With MeeGo we have been accomplishing things we could not get going under the maemo.org banner. Local and regional meetups, at least in favorable areas, have enjoyed incredible success… proving to me, at least, that the solution had potential.
Then, early this morning, Nokia announced it would embrace Windows Phone 7 and reduce its MeeGo involvement to around the level Maemo had suffered when the 770 came out. In other words, life support.
Some observers have leapt to the conclusion that abandonment of the venture by principle partner Nokia will automatically spell doom for MeeGo in toto. I find it difficult to accept that Intel, Texas Instruments and others will simply fold up shop simply because Nokia has elected to invest elsewhere. Surely MeeGo is more resilient than that.
Other have suggested that MeeGo’s continued existence means partnering with competitors. WebOS, itself Linux-based, has been mentioned. There are others with possible synergy that could be approached.
But the biggest question, one that apparently could not be answered satisfactorily for new Nokia CEO Stephen Elop, was: how do you build a profitable ecosystem around mobilized Linux?
I don’t see it as that difficult to address. Adoption of an open source solution like MeeGo significantly reduces a company’s OS development costs, freeing resources up to focus on the two profit drivers that will be most important as many aspects of mobile computers are rendered into commodities: hardware, and services.
Hardware is tougher to to solve. Gaining a technical advantage in the consumer device space means locking up exclusive high-tech from suppliers loathe to do so. Even MeeGo partner Intel likes to cover all of the bases. And today’s exotic must-have hardware is tomorrow’s boring commodity.
Service is different, and it manifests in two ways: the software solutions that differentiate one experience from another, and then the service of making good on your products’ promises.
Nokia struggled with both types of service, but if Elop is blaming that on MeeGo or its hard-working supporters when he speaks of burning platforms, he’s out to lunch. Nokia screwed up in many ways, and in my humble opinion one big one was in trying to copy short-term business practices of the US that end up being self-defeating. And here’s Stephen Elop, dishing out more of the same. Time alone will tell if he’s right… but if he’s wrong, will Nokia recover?
What about Maemo, then? If MeeGo itself was prematurely put to death, Maemo would be the first place to which I would turn. The recent community SSU shows that there may still be some life there. But what if Maemo can’t survive? It certainly been enjoyed some association with MeeGo. If the latter goes, is a community-supported Maemo unsustainable? Maybe not if Nokia released the entire platform… but I can’t see that happening.
If MeeGo survives Nokia’s diminished attention, still under the auspices of the Linux Foundation, nothing really has to change with regards to my involvement. I’m running MeeGo 1.1 on my Intel-gifted ideapad, and mostly pleased. However, rumor now has it that the Netbook UX has lost Intel’s support. I don’t get that. And I’m also not sure what I do with the marketing materials I’ve been creating, as well as the local meetup groups I’m supporting. We’re looking for a strong signal from the Linux Foundation and especially Intel. Interestingly, I was informed before Nokia’s announcement that Intel is working on a MeeGo brand refresh, one that emphasized community more. That makes a great deal of sense now, and I’m looking forward to the results.
If MeeGo AND Maemo fizzle, that leaves me looking for a new hobby altogether. Supporting these communities has been a time-consuming, often nerve-wracking ordeal on one hand… but it’s also blessed me with a wealth of friends who would likely drift off to other endeavors and we might eventually lose touch. Not to mention the opportunities to travel to places, like Dublin and Amsterdam, I might not otherwise have ever enjoyed. Will it end, or are we perhaps looking at something else entirely– a reboot? A remix? A stronger, clearer, sharper commitment to open source solutions?
I’ll leave the in-depth analysis of Nokia’s move to people better suited. But I’ll talk on this subject some more, from different angles, until there’s nothing more to talk about.
One way or another.