2/24/11

Quick Takes: Nokia's culture, RIM's interface, and living in the paradigm of engineers

This post is an experiment.  I sometimes run across information that I think is worth sharing, but that doesn't fit into my usual publishing tools.  Generally it'll be something too complicated to tweet, but too simple for one of my usual long blog posts.  I've decided to try compiling those tidbits into an occasional post, which I call "Quick Takes."

Please let me know if you find this useful.

This time I want to talk about the aftermath of the Nokia-Microsoft deal, Android on BlackBerry, wireless insecurity, and WikiLeaks as a model for the future of human society.


More aftershocks from the Nokia-Microsoft deal

In the flood of commentary about Nokia's deal with Microsoft, I ran across three items with interesting perspectives on the deal.  They helped me understand how much work Nokia still needs to do.  If you're interested in the deal, or just in organizational change, I think they're worth checking out...

The engineering-driven culture.
  Adam Greenfield, a former Nokia employee, discussed Nokia's culture and explained how it produces wonderful mobile phone devices but poor user experiences (link).  The key sentence:
The value-engineering mindset that’s so crucial to profitability as a commodity trader is fatal as a purveyor of experiences.

When I've written in the past that Nokia needs to learn how to do real product management, this is what I was trying to say.

This is how it feels to have an alliance dumped on you.  Meanwhile, if you want to get a sense of how corporate alliances get built, check out Engadget's interview with Aaron Woodman of Microsoft (link).  Aaron is a Microsoft spokesman and a key player in the Windows Phone team, so you might expect him to know chapter and verse about the plans for the alliance with Nokia.  But he doesn't, and you can feel his discomfort as Engadget tries to pin him down on some details:

Q:  There will be no preferential treatment given to Nokia in terms of the level of customization that they can apply to their devices. Is that correct, or no?
A: So it's an interesting question -- you say, like, preferential treatment, so say more about that. Is that like oh, they can modify...

The reality is that a big corporate alliance is created from the top down.  Senior management negotiates the broad outlines, and then announces the deal (because it's material to both companies and has to be announced to prevent insider trading).  Then the mid-level employees have to painstakingly work out what the agreement actually means.  I believe that's happening as you read this, and that process will probably continue for some months.  Meanwhile, Aaron can't answer most of Engadget's questions because the answers don't yet exist.  I give him a lot of credit for not trying to make up something to make himself sound better.

Anyway, if you see some vagueness from Microsoft and Nokia in the next few months, don't be alarmed.  It's how these things are done.

When is an installed base not an installed base?  I've been delighted to watch the rise of Horace Dediu, a former Nokia employee who has built himself a huge online following through very cogent analysis of Apple, and now the overall mobile market.  Although I usually find myself agreeing with everything he says, I thought he was a bit off base in some recent commentary about Nokia (link).

Dediu plotted the installed base of every mobile platform, and pointed out that Symbian has a far larger installed base than any other mobile platform.  He said Nokia has decided to throw away that installed base:

The disposal of such a large installed base must count among the largest divestitures in technology history and, when coupled with the adoption of the least-tested alternative as a replacement, elevates platform risk-taking to a new level. It may seem bold, but there is a fine line between courage and recklessness.

If all of those Symbian users understood that Symbian was their OS, had purchased applications for it, and felt that Symbian added value to their devices, then Nokia would indeed be taking a huge risk.  But virtually the only people who were even aware of Symbian were the people reading and writing blogs about the mobile industry.

Try this -- go look at a typical Nokia Symbian phone.  What is the brand you see on it?  Start the software, launch some apps.  Do you see the word "Symbian" displayed prominently?

Have you ever seen an ad for Symbian?  A billboard perhaps, or a big glossy ad on the back cover of the Economist?

Maybe a teensy little text ad inside the Economist?  Anything?

Indeed not.  Because Nokia didn't want the name Symbian to be prominent.  Heck, it didn't even let Symbian create its own user interface, let alone advertise its brand.  Nokia made Symbian into anonymous plumbing, because Nokia wanted Nokia to be the brand that users bought.  And considering how things worked out, that was something the company did right.

When I was at Palm and we surveyed mobile phone users, we asked Symbian users what OS was on their phones.  Most of them had no idea.  Among the minority who said they knew what their OS was, more of them thought it was Windows than knew it was Symbian.

Let me say that again, more Symbian users thought they were using Windows than knew they were using Symbian.  I guarantee that hasn't changed in the years since we did our surveys.

So, if Nokia executes its marketing properly, it should be able to flip most Symbian users to Windows Phone easily.  Just grin, tell them it's the cool new Nokia smartphone, and move on.  In that vein, the riskiest thing Nokia has done in the past couple of weeks is play up its deal with Microsoft.  It would have been better to play it down, so Nokia customers wouldn't get a message of disruption.

But I doubt most of them are listening anyway.

If there's anything reckless in the Nokia-Microsoft deal, it's the huge number of things that both companies need to execute very well in order to make it work.  But I think there's nothing reckless about the basic idea of ditching Symbian.


Android apps on BlackBerry?

There have been persistent rumors that RIM is trying to get software that will let its PlayBook tablet run Android apps (link).  Now there's some evidence that they may be looking to do the same on BlackBerry phones as well (link).  This seems like a reasonable thing to do, but I'm astounded that they're only working on it now.  The time to plan the app platform for your tablet is when you're creating the software for it, about a year before it ships.  It's not the sort of thing you dink around with a couple of months before shipment.  And you especially don't tell the public about it right before the hardware launches -- all that does is undercut any chance you had of getting native app development on your platform.


Wireless isn't secure (duh)

This isn't news if you've been paying attention.  For years the security companies have been telling us that wireless networks (especially wifi) can easily be snooped.  I'm not sure why the wireless insecurity story has never gotten much traction outside the beltway.  Maybe we weren't using enough web apps to care, or maybe no one listens to the security companies because they're presumed to be alarmists who just want to charge you $49.95 a year for something that'll make your computer run slow.

Anyway, it seems to me that the story is now popping up all over the place.  In December the Wall Street Journal ran a series on the information collected by mobile apps (link), this week The New York Times ran a story on the third party tools available to hack wifi hotspots (link), and a professor at Rice University posted on the types of data his class could sniff from his Android phone (link).  A surprising find -- two apps unrelated to location services were broadcasting his GPS location.

Why is this significant?  The mobile operators plan to offload traffic to wifi to reduce network congestion.  If those networks turn out to be insecure, the operators might be blamed for security breaches that result.  Or if more wifi networks are restricted due to security fears, the operators might find it harder to do that offloading in the first place.  Bottom line -- it is risky to depend on someone else's infrastructure as part of your core product.


WikiLeaks: Human society as designed by an open source engineer

O'Reilly ran a fascinating review of Inside WikiLeaks, a new book describing how WikiLeaks operates (link).  It reminded me of some thoughts I had after I heard a talk by Ward Cunningham, one of the creators of the wiki (link).

Most of the social structures in the world today were designed by two groups of people, religious leaders and lawyers.  The religious leaders gave us governments based on moral codes and hierarchies; the lawyers gave us governments based on laws, property, and checks and balances.  In both cases, the people creating the system built into it their own worldviews, their own assumptions about human nature.  The assumptions were so fundamental that I think they didn't even realize they were using them; they just baked them into the system.

Wikipedia, WikiLeaks, and movements like them are profoundly new because they attempt to structure society around the social assumptions of a third group of people: engineers.  And not just any engineers, but open source engineers.  That culture believes in the rationality of human beings and the existence of absolute truth.  It assumes that if the same information were available to everyone we'd be able to settle all disputes through logical discourse.  And it is intensely hostile to authority structures, because by definition they're assumed to get in the way of free discussion.

WikiLeaks is an attempt by that culture to restructure society.  I know that sounds crazy, but here's a quote from the book:

In the world we dreamed of, there would be no more bosses or hierarchies, and no one could achieve power by withholding from the others the knowledge needed to act as an equal player.

If you want to see this idea taken to its logical extreme, check out the short story "The Ungoverned" by science fiction author Vernor Vinge (it's online here).  I'm not saying that's the world we're headed for, but I think we'd all be foolish to assume that WikiLeaks will be the last attempt at open source social engineering.

I think it's actually just the beginning.

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