What the Microsoft, Nokia Deal Means for Developers

As Nokia adopts Microsoft's Windows Phone as the platform of choice for its smartphones, the opportunity for developers is huge.

Nokia's move to adopt Microsoft's Windows Phone as its principal smartphone strategy has far-reaching implications for developers.

In a Feb. 11 blog post describing the impact of the deal on Microsoft developers, Matt Bencke, a general manager at Microsoft, said, "I'm incredibly excited about its long-term potential and how it could enable us to innovate, differentiate and combine strengths to build a new global ecosystem that creates opportunities beyond anything that currently exists today. We're creating an entirely new ecosystem of possibilities for developers. For our part, Microsoft is first and foremost a platform company, which means that nearly everything we do begins and ends with the developer community in mind. This deal is no exception."

Moreover, from a tools and platform perspective, Bencke said Microsoft is "working to make it as easy as possible for developers to take advantage of this new opportunity." Indeed, "Nokia's Windows Phone portfolio will support existing Windows Phone applications, while Nokia's existing developers can now enjoy an application platform that was specifically designed to make building amazing apps and games for Windows Phone quick and easy," he said. "This means that Windows Phone apps and games will continue to use the free Windows Phone Developer Tools; comprised of Visual Studio 2010, Expression 4, Silverlight and the XNA Framework."

Andrew Brust, founder of Microsoft analysis and strategy service provider Blue Badge Insights, said, "For developers, this is big news. It moves the conversation from one of WP7's technical merit and potential, to, quite possibly, it being one of three major platforms. This will be less about getting in on the ground floor of a new platform, to quite possibly about supporting one that is well-established, with a big install base. This would shift the conversation from why you should develop for WP7 to how you can't afford not to. That's when tech gets big: when the price of implementing it is a small cost on the way to making money somewhere else."

Brust said his opinion on the deal is generally positive but with some caveats. Brust acknowledges that Nokia is a huge player in the smartphone market, though not in the United States, and with market share that is declining. And although Windows Phone is "an excellent platform" and Microsoft is a huge brand, Brust said, it is clearly a tarnished one in the mobility space. "The two companies are on their respective back feet," he said. "But they can certainly help each other: Microsoft gets global reach and market share from Nokia; Nokia upgrades from the somewhat stunted Symbian OS to something modern, touch-centric and contemporary in design value, through Microsoft's WP7."

A spokeswoman for Nokia, told eWEEK: "Qt remains the development platform for Symbian and MeeGo. For Windows Phone, Silverlight is the best tool. We are committed to our developer relationships, and both companies recognize the importance of developers in building a successful ecosystem."

Al Hilwa, an analyst at IDC, sees a bleak forecast for Nokia's Symbian side of things. "The Qt ecosystem for smartphones was in the very early stages," Hilwa said. "Nokia had an uphill battle to get that to be a major player in the new touch world. I still think it is better to have mobile platforms that run multiple frameworks in a given mobile ecosystem, but this particular partnership looks focused on building Windows Phone 7 as we know it today on top of Nokia hardware. They likely have no time to prioritize bringing Qt to Windows Phone 7, given the velocity this market is moving at. In the long run, it would be a good idea. I don't see Java as coming to the Windows Phone 7, however. So the risk is that Nokia may stand to lose the Symbian developer base. However, clearly, that was not working for them anywhere in terms of taking them to the next level, so they had to throw Symbian off of the burning platform."

Meanwhile, Microsoft's Bencke spells out the opportunity for developers, saying the partnership with Nokia can dramatically increase the customer base for Windows Phones and, by extension, Windows Phone applications and games. "This equates to both a larger and more localized consumer market for apps and games on handsets, as well as an acceleration of innovation in back-end services and core infrastructure," he said.

Moreover, Nokia already has strong relationships with operators in more than 190 markets and manages an application marketplace that delivers four million downloads per day, Bencke said. Add to that the Windows Phone developer community, which can boast more than 8,000 applications and games, 28,000 registered developers and more than a million tools downloaded, he said.

Brust said he sees two things developers should keep in mind. One is that "Stephen Elop is now Nokia's CEO, and he's working hard on changing things. So Nokia's past malaise is not a definitive predictor if its future prowess." The other is that Windows Phone "will now be pushed through two outlets: the Nokia channel, whose model is somewhat Apple-like in its brand, presence and power; and WP7 continues its push through the multi-OEM channel, which is Google's current model. That opens the war on two fronts, and that's a big deal."

Bencke says Microsoft's mobile developer ecosystem has become one of the company's strongest assets and this opportunity with Nokia will only bolster that. "The stage on which you can shine just got bigger," Bencke said.

For his part, Brust said he sees even more specific opportunities for Microsoft/Nokia to compete against the likes of Google and Apple.

"I'm mindful of current Google-ite and ex-blue badge Vic Gundotra's now infamous -two turkeys don't make an eagle' tweet," Brust said. "But I'm also mindful of one pertinent example of where he'd be wrong: Bing + Yahoo have now created serious competition, both technically and market-share-wise, for Google's search engine. With that in mind, I think it's certainly feasible for WP7 + Nokia to challenge Google's Android platform in a credible way, if not in a threatening one. And, yes, a challenge to the aging iOS platform, too."