MeeGo a no-show at NokiaWorld, but CTO says it's "critically important"

MeeGo logoOne of the oddest things about the keynote presentations during the NokiaWorld conference was the conspicuous absence of commentary about MeeGo, the Linux-based mobile platform that is expected to eventually displace Symbian as the dominant operating system on Nokia's high-end products. During the major product announcements on the opening day of the conference, the only time that a Nokia executive mentioned MeeGo was to say that there would be no MeeGo-based products announced this week.

Virtually all of the company's remarks about platform strategy related directly to Symbian. It's obvious that Symbian still has a major role to play in Nokia's business, but it's not entirely clear yet how Nokia is going to move forward with its MeeGo plan. Earlier this year, Nokia executives said that MeeGo is the future of the company's premium N-series products and that the recently-launched N8 would possibly be the last phone in that line to ship with Symbian. At the LinuxCon event in San Francisco last month, the company reiterated its commitment to MeeGo and confirmed that it will be delivering its first MeeGo device this year.

Despite the profound significance of the seemingly imminent transition to MeeGo for high-end products, Nokia's top leaders didn't seem to have much to say about it during the NokiaWorld keynotes. I raised this issue when I discussed Nokia's software plans with Rich Green, the company's new CTO. When I asked him if Nokia's commitment to MeeGo has changed, his response was unambiguous: MeeGo is "critically important" to Nokia's smartphone business. He says that Nokia's success in the high-end smartphone market will depend on the company's ability to deliver a more desktop-like mobile platform that is better-suited as a rival for iOS and Android. He sees MeeGo as Nokia's answer for that segment of the market, but he also believes that it could eventually play an even broader role on Nokia's product lineup in the future when hardware advancements make it practical to bring MeeGo to lower-end devices.

Green is a fresh hire for Nokia. He was previously the executive vice president of software at Sun, but resigned from that position in 2008. Much like Nokia's new Microsoft-veteran CEO, Green brings a background in software to a key spot in Nokia's new leadership structure. Green aims to help the company accelerate its software strategy as it continues to undertake what he describes as a transition from being an embedded device company to being a software, platform, and services company.

The reason why MeeGo didn't figure prominently in Nokia's announcements during the event, he explained, is because the company isn't ready to disclose specific MeeGo product plans yet. He says that Nokia is becoming more disciplined about how it presents its roadmap and articulates its product strategy. The company will only talk about products that are ready to ship, rather than products that are in the pipeline. The goal of NokiaWorld, he contends, was to show what Nokia is ready to deliver today. He is concerned that disclosing too much information in advance would cause frustration among consumers and technology enthusiasts when plans change later in the product development cycle.

The Symbian strategy

Green says that Symbian is important to Nokia because it is easier to scale down to the kind of low-cost devices that the company is shipping in large volume. Nokia has a strong market (albeit, one with slim margins) in the developing world, where mobile technology is seeing explosive growth and consumers tend to use a phone device as their primary means of accessing the Internet.

Most of Nokia's devices that are targeted at that market today use the s40 platform, which is somewhere between a smartphone and feature phone operating system. As Nokia continues to aggressively bring down the cost of its budget products, we could potentially see a lot more conventional Symbian devices moving into that space. Symbian seems like a less compelling option, however, for modern multimedia and business smartphones. Negative perceptions of the platform, particularly the persisting angst of Symbian enthusiasts who were disappointed with the failings of Nokia's previous N97 flagship device, could hinder uptake of Nokia's new Symbian^3-based products.

Anssi Vanjoki, Nokia's executive vice president and general manager of mobile solutions, expressed some annoyance with public perception about Symbian during his keynote on the first day of the event. He complained that critics are unfairly attacking Symbian^3 solely on the basis of its visual similarities to previous versions. He says that such critics are overlooking the substantial improvements that have taken place under the hood that improve the general usefulness of the platform and its suitability for modern smartphones. In order to get a real appreciation for how far Symbian has come, he says that users need to actually try the new devices themselves. He also indicated that the close resemblance to previous versions is intentional and was motivated by a desire to build on the familiarity that existing users have with the classic Symbian S60 user interface.

After spending some time handling the N8 and upcoming C7 and E7 products, I can sympathize with Vanjoki's viewpoint, but I think that his message is one that will likely be lost on regular consumers. During my brief tests during the event, I found that the new version of the operating system is more responsive and handles animated transitions and interactivity better than previous versions. Unlike the clumsy software that launched on the N97, the new devices are relatively smooth during screen rotation and other similar behaviors. Symbian^3 on Nokia's new handsets delivers a very functional mobile software environment, but it lacks the sense of refinement and the uniquely imaginative flourishes that you see in iOS and Android. It's not a bad platform, but it doesn't seem particularly ambitious and doesn't exude the same level of innovation that you see in Nokia's impressive hardware.

One of the major points that Vanjoki raised during the keynotes is that Symbian^3 offers substantially better multitasking than previous versions of Symbian and several major competing platforms. Application switching is relatively smooth, allowing the user to jump from task to task. He claimed that he was running over 20 simultaneous tasks on his phone during the event. This is one area where there seems to be some promising competitive strength. In general, I think that the new Symbian^3 devices (especially the slick E7) feel more like mobile computing devices than phones, which is what I expect from a good smartphone and something that was lacking in older Symbian devices.

It's a step in the right direction, but it's not quite where it needs to be yet, especially in the area of user experience. The Symbian Foundation is supposedly working on some major improvements to the platform's look and feel for version 4, but the bits that we have seen so far don't really encourage a whole lot of confidence yet. The slow progress in that area upstream coupled with Nokia's trepidation about deviating from standard Symbian user interface concepts makes it seem unlikely that we will see a dramatic overhaul.

Green acknowledged that the user interface of the new Symbian products like the N8 isn't entirely shiny enough to catch the eye of US consumers, yet. He says that Nokia is going to work on some incremental cosmetic enhancements, like improving the icons, before the company starts aggressively courting mobile carriers in North America. It seems like he appreciates the weight that US buyers put on first impressions. He says that we can expect to see Nokia delivering more carrier-subsidized smartphones in the US in the future as the company's smartphone strategy accelerates and its products become more competitive with the kind of devices favored by US consumers.

I'm a bit disappointed with the general lack of details about the company's MeeGo strategy, but I'm hopeful that a clearer picture will emerge later this year when they finally unveil the promised MeeGo device. Nokia is doing a lot to move Symbian forward, but I don't think it's really enough to give the company's otherwise-impressive new products an edge over the iPhone and popular Android handsets. I do think, however, that Symbian lovers who were simply turned off by the poor execution of the N97 should give Nokia another chance with the N8 and E7. As far as Symbian devices go, they are really compelling. Keep an eye open for our follow-up article next week about Nokia's development platform strategy and Ovi distribution channel improvements.

Source: ars technica

Tags: MeeGo, mobile phones, Nokia

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