Nokia's Roll of the Dice

Nokia's Windows Phone deal with Microsoft bets the farm on a longshot.

I never did quite know what to make of Symbian, and it looks like I never will. That's because chief supporter Nokia has all but given up on the mobile operating system and inked a deal with Microsoft instead. Short term, this looks bad for Nokia: The company's stock price on the Helsinki exchange fell more than 14 percent on the day the agreement, which would put Windows Phone 7 on its mobile handsets, was unveiled.

Nokia still has plans to sell at least 150 million Symbian-based handsets in the next couple of years, and it probably will. However, the people buying those devices won't be informed or influential customers; they will be buying Nokia devices because they've always bought Nokia, and they couldn't care less what OS is inside. The question is whether those devices will further tarnish the brand, as customers looking for applications and services that match those available for Android and iOS devices realize that there's not much in the way of a Symbian developer community.

Although Symbian had a substantial lead in the smartphone sweepstakes, there was an ongoing tug of war over the user interface and while much of that wrangling was inside baseball from a customer perspective, it was a completely different matter for developers. They had to choose to write for NTT DoCoMo's MOAP, Nokia's Series 60, 80 and 90, or Sony Ericsson's UIQ, and that UI fragmentation kept developers chained in a single handset maker's garden. Eventually, Series 60 emerged as the winner of the Symbian UI crown, but by the time the dust had settled, the iPhone had emerged as the place to be for mobile applications.

In the long term, the Microsoft deal looks like the best way out for Nokia's leadership, or at least, the best of a number of crummy choices. Had Nokia joined up with the Open Handset Foundation back in 2007, it could have steered the Android platform in a direction favorable to it; going with Android at this point would have made Nokia just another face in the crowd. By getting most-favored-nation status from Microsoft, Nokia becomes more than just another Windows Phone vendor, but the question to which nobody really knows the answer yet is: What does that lead to? It's safe to assume that Nokia might be able to get a Windows Phone device out the door in time for Christmas, but that any serious sales of that platform will have to wait until 2012 at the earliest. That says to me that Nokia is really betting on Windows Phone 8.

Developers, and their employers, have to make tough decisions about which platforms they intend to support. The obvious choices, of course, are Android and iOS; for business-focused applications, BlackBerry is a must. For many shops, those three are enough to deal with. But I believe that Microsoft gets more out of the deal with Nokia than Nokia itself does, because Nokia has painted itself into a corner, and this is its only way out. But in escaping from its self-inflicted trap, Nokia stands to give Windows Phone, whether release 7 or release 8, a huge boost in user base. That boost in user base of people who buy Nokia because they've always bought Nokia will give developers a reason to treat Windows Phone seriously.

Something interesting is happening at Nokia. (I didn't think I would ever write those words again.) If it's more than just CEO Stephen Elop trying to put his stamp on the company, that's a good thing. Otherwise, it's just change for the sake of change.