Being caught with your trousers down is never good unless you have a truly spectacular undercarriage. Take the games industry as an example: First, Atari were caught by themselves, Sega and Nintendo. Then, Sony strolled in and caught Sega. Sony, believing themselves now to be invincible didn’t spot that their belt had snapped and were caught by Microsoft’s surprise software innovations such as achievements, Live! and a fantastic UI (which fortunately for them covered up their awful hardware reliability). Sony then got caught a second time by Apple in the mobile market. Nintendo didn’t read the tea-leaves from that and failed to spot that they’d lost a little weight and their pants were sliding down allowing them also to be well and truly snared by Apple and social gaming, mobile and otherwise. In fact, Nintendo were so unprepared that they ended up posting their first ever loss of 575 million dollars (46 billion yen). They simply didn’t see it coming: the world changed around them and they stayed the same.
To be fair, Apple caught a lot of people including the old behemoth of laurel resting and disjointed thinking, Nokia. When Nokia’s trousers fell, it turned out that they had a really, really small willy. Resting on one’s laurels is highly risky: it might be comfortable, but you’re shielded completely from what’s going on in the real world. It is laurel resting that leads one to believe that a 3D hand-held console is just the ticket and that a snazzed up Wii (Nintendo: ‘yesterday’s technology, today!’) is an inspired and brilliant way of continuing the run-away initial, pre-smartphone sales of the Wii. Of course, many people who bought a Wii used it once, perhaps twice, and then it gathered dust: their whizzy trick had no longevity because it was a gimmick that happened to fit the moment. Microsoft’s cost-reduced 360 and vastly superior Kinect didn’t help, either. Ultimately, though, any hand-held device that isn’t also an Internet connected phone is shafted for the time being which leaves Nintendo’s current head-in-the-sand approach looking foolish, to say the least. Trousers. Down. Again. I seriously doubt Nintendo’s first posted loss ever will be their last without a serious spectacles cleaning.
The toy industry is also not immune to thinking that the past way that they did business will be the future way that they’ll do business. Check out Skylanders. Honestly: it’s genius. If my daughter would only hurry up and age three years in the next few days, I’d buy one. For her, you understand, for her. And it’s got the toy industry all nervous-like because they can’t do software. They’ve tried, they’ve crashed and they’ve burned. Activision, though, well – they can do software. And now, it turns out, they can make hardware, too. It’s cheap, it’s easy, the margins must be awesome and in this connected, social media world of tomorrow, it’s what everyone wants: neat integration between the digital and the physical. They’ve built an on-going revenue stream where the average revenue per user has got to be outstanding, or I’m a Monkey’s Uncle. All those crap “new, from Character!” things you see advertised between episodes of Spongebob Squarepants on Nickelodeon? Flashes in the pan, and I’ll bet they know that too: sell it quick before the market fucks off over the hill forever. The global network and smartphones have changed the world and it’s now shake-down time for the slowcoaches and laurel resters.
You’d think that observing the speed at which everything related to our entertainment is changing would cause the prehistoric dinosaur industries like those that are punishing their own customers (I’m looking at you, Hollywood, you jerkwads. Honestly. Ultra-violet. What on earth are you doing? Will you not rest until you’ve pissed off every single customer?) to sit up and say “hey, we need to be a bit smarter here. Or at least a little more pragmatic.” The mere glimpse of new funding models for creative products such as Kickstarter should be causing them all to check their trousers but it appears not. They can live in the past in the present, but not in the future.
But I digress. Back to Nokia. Nokia, you see, know how to make good hardware. What they don’t know is how to make usable software. In fact, they believe that complexity is the key to ease of use; oh, that and unreliability coupled with bending over and taking it up the tradesman’s entrance from the carriers. Needless to say, they were totally unprepared for Apple’s entry into the market (as were the entire mobile industry, frankly). They perceived no threat and as a result, their shrivelled up little Nokia balls shivered on the breeze of foolishness. My love for Nokia started with the GSM 2110 phone many, many years ago back when you needed a reinforced jacket pocket to carry one. It ended with the N95: a triumph of hardware design over usability. I hated that phone more than an hour’s work with a thesaurus could adequately describe. It crashed. It ran out of memory. You needed The Force to find settings. It stopped taking calls. It failed to send texts. It was loaded with carrier “enhancements”. In short, it was shite.
But when it comes to trousers, you’ve really got to admire Microsoft. After everyone’s seen their chime and clockweights, they’re prepared to pull them back up and pretend that nothing happened. So long as you don’t get distracted by dying technologies such as C#, Silverlight and .NET, have the right book (Petzold), pick the primary API (Win32/WinAPI) that’s not going to be worthless in a few years then, well, they’re cool. Also, you have to recognise that Microsoft won’t fix their developer tools properly unless a big customer is in pain. They’d rather spend two years building a new one that’ll cause you to have to make massive investments in time and money to upgrade to rather than incrementally patch: in short, they have an incurable case of Shiny Box Syndrome. Still, all this aside, if they’re wrong, they appear to be smart enough to cut the old crap loose rather than flog a dead horse until it’s a pile of fossilising bones. This may cost a few developers their livelihoods, but as Spock said, the lives of the many…
Curiouser and curiouser, Alice
And it is out of this that an interesting alliance has appeared. So far, it seems to have been a whopping failure, but it is made of the right ingredients, I’d humbly suggest. Nokia build nice hardware — their new Windows phones look and feel great. A commuter on the 18:14 party train showed me his a month ago: it looks good! And, amazingly, it feels good too. The software is nice. It’s not “me too” like most Android customisations (especially Samsung’s: even the blind have to admit that there is more than a passing similarity to Apple’s innovations there), it’s different, it’s novel and it seems to understand that the way we work with our digital devices has changed thanks to a growing reliance on being connected to the global network at all times. Apple clearly have more things up their sleeves on this subject. iCloud is clever, very clever. As a customer retention device it’s the sneakiest for many years because it’s really actually rather good and, oh my, is it easy to set up and use. It’s still half-arsed in many areas (iWork files in iCloud on OSX? Dream on, suckers!), but it has hope if a post-Jobs Apple hasn’t flushed his values into the ground alongside him.
So Nokia’s hardware coupled with Microsoft’s Windows Phone 7 looks like a match made in heaven. Hopefully they’ll get further than fondling each other’s boobs in this relationship. Even better, if the carriers don’t take advantage of their current weakness to cull their work at birth then the market will be a lot stronger for everyone if something groovy and different keeps Apple on their toes. But it’s too easy for this to all go tits up: we’re merely at the seedling stage here and it seems like everyone has their axes out to poke around with what seems, to an armchair general like myself, anyway, to be a really good strategic relationship.
Iceberging a strategy that seems plausible
Nokia builds and designs good hardware. It looks good. It feels good. Their software and recent marketing leaves a lot to desire. The marriage to Microsoft is, so far, rocky despite the heritage of Nokia’s CEO. The carriers are moaning (but they always do). The consumers are unsure or unaware. Microsoft, it seems, are not making nearly as much effort as they bloody well ought to given the importance to them that this relationship flies and Nokia have their usual hide-behind-the-sofa-in-embarrassment developer and customer relations running at full steam. If you can bare it, and you probably can’t because it’s so bloody awful, check out this keynote presentation from Nokia World 2011 in London. Skip to 2 minutes 15 seconds, sit back and… well, you’ll see. Try to endure the following 20 seconds without cringing. More cheese than a French cheese festival held in a cheese factory. There is a topping of additional over enthusiasm at 3:27 if you’ve not already exceeded your groan threshold by at least an order of magnitude. Nokia: I know a cuddly shark that can do a better job of evangelising than this guy. Contact me. I’ll put you in touch, he’s been seen in a nearby ocean and I have an appointment to see him again in May.
Nokia and Microsoft: as much as it pains me, the world needs you to get this right. Well, righter, anyway. Take this seriously for three reasons:
- Nokia, you make good hardware
- Microsoft, this is surprisingly innovative software: it’s up to the levels of the first iteration of XBOX Live! Without the groundbreaking leaps you made there, your users would never have forgiven the initial piss-poor hardware construction quality. Ok, it’s got some way to go to catch up with the feature set of iOS and Android, but still, it looks fantastic
- It’s different, in a good way. It complements Android and iOS wonderfully and we’re all better off with a plausible third contender in the market
It’s great not to just have Samsung running as fast as they can in Apple’s slipstream wearing Google’s ‘sneakers of no privacy’. So long as everyone can all stop suing each other for long enough then I believe, for what that’s worth, that the Nokia and Microsoft marriage enhances the entire mobile market significantly with genuine innovation. It’s good for everyone. But, and there’s always a but, it honestly looks from the outside that neither of them are sure it’ll fly so they’re planning accordingly: one foot in the door, but one foot out… just in case. My armchair general’s suggestion is this: no backup plans, no alternatives, go ALL IN, and do it now. And for crying out loud: make sure Windows Phone 8 can be installed on the existing Lumina range and take your developers — especially the small ones — with you. This delicate time is not the moment for Shiny Box Syndrome to destroy any goodwill built so far.
Unlike RIM, the Blackberry chaps, who, let’s face it, need to pull a gold-plated rabbit that shits miracles out of the hat in order to regain any semblance of success, Nokia has potential. There’s nothing wrong with their hardware and they’ve correctly, in my back-seat driver’s opinion, identified that their software strategy was the direct highway to nowhere. Teaming up with Microsoft looks exactly like the burning platform scenario their CEO was talking about in his 2011 internal memo/blog/whatever it was which is why it’s so baffling to see both sides noodling around rather than quite obviously pulling out all the stops. The opportunity is amazing and it reinforces option “3” in the three-most-obvious-outcomes chart: 1) fade into obscurity, 2) get bought (either by Microsoft or someone else) and 3) perform ‘tactical manoeuvre Apple’. I’m not sure I’d buy shares in Nokia on the back of the potential upside (although at 3.50 I might be tempted…), but I find myself with my fingers crossed. If nothing else, success would stop Apple from being the next laurel rester.
Update, June 2012: I take it all back. Microsoft’s Windows Phone 8 is not compatible with existing Windows Phone hardware, thus, if you buy a state of the art Nokia phone this year, you’re screwed. I guess they have a mutual suicide pact in the phone market. Microsoft: you deserve the market share you’re going to end up with after this. Pity it affects everyone else. Nokia: seriously dudes, seriously, what the fuck?
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