Nokia’s S40 operating system has long been relegated to non-multitasking offerings in its stable of devices. Simple to implement and use, it’s the ammunition for Nokia’s carpet-bomb-the-developing-world-with-cellphones strategy. Symbian, and then Maemo, and then MeeGo and now Windows Phone 7 have been touted as the operating system(s) for the rich high end (excluding Vertu and some other exceptions).
The thinking seems to have been, “Get low-end Nokia devices into the hands of those who can’t/won’t yet use or afford smartphones, and then migrate them upward when the time is right”.
Great tactic in theory, but it has so far failed to succeed as needed. For Nokia, anyway.
Understanding why is not difficult. After joining Nokia’s US operations in 2005, I was astounded to newly discover N- and E-series devices. To my limited American experience, Nokia was the majority owner of the grocery store end cap, devoting its energies solely to cheap cell phones… especially pay-as-you go products for companies like Tracfone. So in my mind, Nokia was synonymous with the low end.
If I had been alone in that assumption, Nokia would have been fine. But history clearly illustrates that as America’s desire for smartphones ramped up, Nokia lost out. So I can only imagine I’m not so alone.
The reasons for Nokia’s US decline are more complex than simple purchaser perception, but that one is key. If Nokia had succeeded in educating US citizens about its high end offerings, and how the company was about much more than “disposable” phones, then service providers would have surely been besieged by irresistible demands that Nokia smartphones be made available as subsidized options. But because purchasers saw Nokia in a single low light, that didn’t happen. Handset manufacturers who did a better job of promoting their high end succeeded instead. And ultimately, a consumer electronics company with no low-end handset legacy at all came out of left field to dominate with its iPhone.
This wasn’t limited to the United States, either. Nokia worked the low and mid ranges in India, too, hoping to get the upgrade action going there. Despite initial success, though, as observers suspected Nokia has recently seen competitors move in to capture many customers. Retention, again, has been a problem.
So we’ve covered the past. Let’s talk about the future.
Nokia dropped some strong hints about its plans for “the next billion” at its Nokia Connection 2011 event. Development framework Qt, HTML5 and operating system S40 have been recently discussed in such semantic proximity lately that the only reasonable conclusion is that Nokia is taking a new tack: rather than pulling handset owners up to the world of smartphones, it will instead push that rich functionality down into price points that a few years ago would have been unfathomable.
Let that process for a minute.
As much as Nokia has stumbled during the past few years, it very well could make this work! They have the expertise, the logistics, and surely the desperation required to change the smartphone game in a way that most competitors will be unable to meet or beat. Beef up the power on low end devices and use Qt to create a truly breathtaking experience for users unused to smartphone niceties. CEO Stephen Elop has already declared that a full touch UI is coming to S40.
Of course this comes with a caveat: these users don’t want complex. Not all of them choose S40 for cost; many select it for its simplicity and responsiveness. Both come courtesy of avoiding multitasking and third-party applications. Now, putting high-powered CPUs into these handsets will certainly mitigate performance hits– but if Nokia is going to utilize Qt for UX/UI solutions, then they will have to expect pressure from third-party developers. Clear, strong guidelines and a rigorous test/approval process should help.
Before such a bold initiative could work, however, Nokia still has to battle ongoing perception problems. Its strategy for the past several months has been flexible to the point of chaos. Consumers, developers and service providers are confused, frustrated and as angry as Rovio’s birds.
Mobile pundits have long urged Nokia to start taking PR seriously. Rethink retreats such as the closing of consumer-friendly flagship stores. Ratchet up the advertising. Improve outreach to bloggers like me. Work like never before for that next billion.
If they don’t, they’ll be seen as disposable as those end cap phones.