This is going to be that grandstanding “I told you so” post I promised a few days ago. When did I tell you so? In April of 2009, when I felt like the incumbent players in mobile had turned to FUD and misleading numbers to try to combat the hemorrhaging of marketshare and developer mindshare they were seeing. In particular, before we move on, I would like to share a few words with the folks who said I was too “US biased” in my thinking. And all those mobile pundits out there who claimed I didn’t really know how the market worked, and that Apple wasn’t having as big of an impact on the marketplace as they would like us to believe. The words I would like to share: screw you. Screw you. Screw you!!! There, I feel a lot better.
Now, onto the slightly more serious points of conversation. There’s a lot of analysis floating around out there about this deal. Tons and tons of it by folks who are mobile veterans, and include theories about optimizing hardware production processes and giving Microsoft a tightly tethered OEM so that they can control the whole stack the way that Apple does. All that stuff is really missing the forest for the trees.
I think the very top level reasons are pretty obvious if you detach from the details and think about it. What is the number one criticism leveled at Microsoft over and over again about its efforts in mobile? Lack of consumer adoption and scale. And that’s exactly what Nokia has. And what is the number one problem for Nokia despite having scale and consumer adoption? They can’t create and support a third party developer system. And wow, look at that, it’s one of the things everyone accepts that Microsoft does well. Everything else really hangs off those principles. It actually gets skipped over a lot in the trade coverage cause it’s so fundamental people just take it for granted.
However, it’s important to keep in mind if you’re doing something like figure out if this was a good deal or not. This isn’t a two party deal however. In every possible future I’ve seen discussed so far, third party developers need to figure pretty heavily into this. So I’m really curious to see how the combined forces of Nokia and Microsoft attempt to address bootstrapping this new effort.
One thing to remember, for those who weren’t as into it back in the day, is that the iPhone didn’t have native apps to start out with. For the first year it managed to draw in huge numbers of users and attract a ton of mindshare based on the apps it shipped with and a spectacular web browser. Once Apple saw they had a hit platform on their hands it made sense to open it up to third party developers. Because there was pent up demand in the market from a large existing install base of users, those early developers had great stories to tell about the platform and resulted in additional developers. The additional apps from the additional developers led to more draw from users. Feedback loop completed. Nice job Apple, well played.
The funny thing about that playbook is that it only works once. Apple was able to do what it did cause all the mobile platforms that came before it sucked at supporting third party developers. Thus Apple was able to launch a mobile device all by themselves and get some real traction. An attempt to execute the same strategy in today’s environment would never work. Now the immediate response is “What? No huge catalog of apps? Your platform sucks.” There was a window of time when that wasn’t a complete given, and the Google folks managed to release Android to market under the bar. But now that window is firmly shut. Microsoft attempted to address the issue by paying to have the popular titles on other platforms ported over to Windows Phone 7. I think all would agree that the attempt was underwhelming and something not likely to be repeated.
I think the only way to address the widening gap between Apple/Google and the rest of the world is to look to the next model down the line. Competing head to head based on a native development platform with a fat and fluid monetization channel would really be the wrong way to go. What we need here is some innovation and model transformation, and generally speaking that’s not how Microsoft and Nokia operate.
So to all the other developers out there who are going to be hearing a ton of marketing down the line about the Microsoft/Nokia partnership and trying to make some sense of it, remember that this isn’t a two party deal. This is really about Microsoft, Nokia, and us. And in business deals like in poker: if you look around the table and can’t figure out who the sucker is, it’s you.