The cracks are beginning to show in the multibillion-dollar mobile-phone partnership between Nokia and Microsoft. As Windows Phone continues to register minimal growth, Nokia has grown frustrated with how slow Microsoft is to improve the operating system.
So Nokia is forging ahead on its own to make its chosen platform more attractive to developers with the hope of attracting consumers. That means taking it upon itself to build out Windows Phone by adding new functions and giving developers new tools and options to build quality features into their apps.
Because, in mobile, apps are the name of the game.
“You can’t sell a phone without the apps, you just can’t,” Nokia VP Bryan Biniak told The International Business Times last week. "We are trying to evolve the cultural thinking [at Microsoft] to say 'time is of the essence.' Waiting until the end of your fiscal year when you need to close your targets, doesn't do us any good when I have phones to sell today."
As it stands, the Windows Phone Marketplace sells about 165,000 apps today. Yet that number excludes many of the most popular apps that ultimately help sell devices like the iPhone and Android smartphones. Windows Phone lags behind the 900,000 or so apps on Apple's App Store and the more than a million found in the Google Play store for Android.
While Microsoft has made progress bringing some of the most popular apps to Windows Phone—Spotify, Evernote, Zite, Path, Flipboard, Vine—many apps that people rely upon on a day to day basis are still missing—Instagram, SnapChat, RunKeeper, etc. Because of its low market share in comparison to rival platforms, developers do not bring their apps to Windows Phone as the first or even second option. Top-tier apps often come months behind Android and iOS, if they come at all.
Biniak told The International Business Times that this is unacceptable:
"People rely on applications for their day-to-day life and if you don't have something which I use in my day-to-day life I'm not going to switch [operating systems] because I don't want to compromise the way I live my life just to switch to a phone. It's not just about the hardware, it's about the tools that are on the hardware."
Nokia Should Have Known
Nokia should have known what it was getting into. In 2011, then-new Nokia CEO Stephen Elop decided to throw his company off the metaphorical "burning platform"—its homegrown software—and into the hands of his former colleagues at Microsoft with Windows Phone in a famous memo about the company's direction in 2011.
But he of all people should have been able to take a step back and say, “Really, is Microsoft going to be able to innovate this product at the speed of mobile?”
In Elop's famous memo, he described Nokia's choices as a "burning platform"—an oil platform in the ocean, in his colorful metaphor. The company could stay on the platform and watch its hopes burn around it, or jump into an unknown, cold, dark sea. The burning platform Nokia leapt from was the stagnating Symbian operating system and the unproven MeeGo. The sea that Elop led his company was the chilly embrace of Microsoft.
Of all people, Elop should have known that Microsoft, over the decades, had become a company that takes its time, focuses more on “speeds and feeds,” and lacked design chops. When he left Redmond for Espoo in 2010, he was the eighth largest shareholder in the company and a member of the senior leadership team.
By 2011, Android was growing like gangbusters behind the strength of high-end smartphones from the likes of Motorola, HTC, and Samsung. Apple was in the midst of creating a developer ecosystem that could definitively say “there's an app for that.” Microsoft? It was starting over with its mobile operating system from the aging Windows Mobile to Windows Phone. Microsoft would then break the platform again by transitioning to Windows Phone 8 in 2012.
Essentially, Microsoft has not given the Windows Phone application ecosystem much incentive or opportunity to grow. This is a company that is used to releasing major versions of products every three years or so, as it has done with its Windows operating system for the last decade. That is not going to cut it in the mobile industry. New features and system upgrades are released by the major players at least once a year, if not more frequently. Those operating system upgrades lead to new phones that lead to sales that, ultimately, leads to app developers building for that platform. When developers support an operating system, consumers will buy smartphones. That is how the mobile industry works, at least for the time being.
Microsoft seems content to leave Windows Phone as a sidekick to its more strategically important Windows 8 tablets and laptops, its Azure cloud offering, and its Office products. Theoretically, those products should benefit Windows Phone, too, but Microsoft hasn't shown that theory working out in practice.
Nokia Must Take The Reins
The success or failure of Windows Phone is important to Microsoft, but not as much as it is to Nokia. Microsoft can survive with a Windows Phone that does marginally well in comparison to Google’s Android and Apple’s iPhone.
Nokia can’t survive in that marginal position.
Nokia sells phones for a living. That is what it does and it used to do it extremely well. The smartphone maker does not have the luxury of other billion dollar product verticals the way Microsoft does. Hence the sense of urgency from Biniak and others at Nokia to get Microsoft’s butt in gear on Windows Phone development.
Nokia is not completely dependent on Microsoft, though. From its years as a leader in building smartphones, Nokia has plenty of assets to entice developers to its platform. The two biggest examples were recently features in Nokia’s new flagship smartphone, the Lumia 1020: the camera and Here maps.
“That is exactly why there is a huge opportunity. The first steps have been taken by integrating our platform into Windows Phone 8 already," said Nokia’s VP of Windows Phone applications at Here, Thom Brenner in an interview with ReadWrite.
As ReadWrite reported in July, the Nokia Image SDK is a suite of tools for developers to build interesting functionality into camera apps for Lumia devices and Windows Phone.
“We have a clear location strategy for Here. We follow that strategy and drive ideas forward and our vision of the future. From that we coordinate with Microsoft and then define the steps to get those capabilities into the platform and the added experiences on top,” Brenner said.
Firing Up Its Own Platform
Features like a superior camera and its own maps give Nokia an opportunity to talk to developers and have a conversation that goes beyond stock Windows Phone features. But is that enough to draw app makers in? Nokia may not have had a choice but to leap from the burning platform. But it may not have realized just how much work it would have to do to build the platform it landed on.