Updating into oblivion

I updated my Nokia 700 today. It’s an unlocked, unbranded phone running Symbian Belle, that was advertised as having OS updates in February and April this year—but those updates never arrived. I eventually lost patience, and made the updates using underhand and possibly illegal tools. iPhone 4 (with bumper), Galaxy Nexus, Nokia 700

In an earlier post I said that I wasn’t too bothered about OS updates. For the most part that’s true. I don’t mind that my Android tablet (the original Galaxy Tab) hasn’t had an update since Android 2.3. I appreciate that Samsung gave some sign of having actually looked into whether an update would run well on it and decided that it wouldn’t. That puts me in a better position than friends with the iPhone 3 who had their devices rendered into sludge by an iOS update too far.

But Nokia—they really worked hard at winding me up. The February update didn’t just piddle about with the core OS, it also added some applications that I was genuinely interested in trying and that couldn’t be installed any other way. The April update didn’t mess about either, it actually increased the phone’s CPU clock speed. (How? Why was it lower to begin with?)

And for UK unlocked devices, they had two product codes: evidently the good and the bad. The good got the updates, and I had the bad. The bad didn’t get the updates.

So having waited until late July, I lost patience and re-flashed the thing.

I’m a bit cross about it because of, well, being put to such lengths and made to feel like I actually cared, about something so trivial.

On the other hand… a Nokia 700 with the latest Belle FP1 is a really nice phone. It’s hard to stay cross for long.

Neat, thin form factor, excellent screen, expandable storage and replaceable battery, physical buttons all well placed. Yes, it’s immaculately built… in Hungary, where Nokia laid off most of their workers at the end of last year.

With Belle FP1 and the faster clock speed, it’s smooth, straightforward and enjoyable to use. Sure there are some extra things I could still do with (integrated notifications of new email for example) but it’s for the first time a phone I could actually recommend to friends who liked the size and construction… running on an operating system cut adrift in February last year and effectively canned with Nokia’s last round of layoffs.

There aren’t as many good apps as on other platforms, but it does have a number of smooth Qt-based ones, including a few very slick and useful apps from Nokia, and it’s an attractive device for a Qt developer like me to think of developing for… if only there was an ecosystem around it and if only future devices were compatible… and if Nokia hadn’t abandoned Qt in their platform strategy twice, once with the switch to WP7 and again when refocusing on S40 a month ago.

Yep, the 700 is a wonderful example of what might have been.

I’m tempted to buy another as a spare, just because I like it so much and its future is so plainly bleak. I wonder how many of the services on it would stop working if Nokia went under?

Windows Phone 8 and Nokia

Microsoft formally announced Windows Phone 8 yesterday.

There were some interesting technical details in the announcement: it permits running native code, will apparently support individual app distribution centres for corporate users, and has a less boring home screen.

They also confirmed, as expected, that there will be no upgrades from Windows Phone 7.

I’m not sure this will be such a big deal for existing users. I think it’s easy to overstate how much users generally care about updates, and at least this way there is certainty—in contrast to Nokia’s update mechanism for Symbian which involved announcing the update first, then rolling it out to devices over a period of months or in some cases not at all.

It can’t help the sales potential of current devices though.

What are Nokia trying to sell?

Looking at Nokia’s UK site now, it shows 24 phones (that’s down from 105 phones and a laptop, just before the February 2011 reshuffle).

Of those 24, four run the Windows Phone 7 whose non-upgradeable successor was just announced.

A further four, I think, run variants of Symbian. The most up-to-date (Belle) was recently effectively canned. But hey, only one phone ships with that anyway—the rest come with even more out-of-date variants.

The remaining 16, if I’m counting correctly, run the S40 Java-mobile feature phone platform and are presumably sold at pretty thin margins.

Nokia are I suppose hoping to have WP8 phones out by Christmas. That’ll be nearly two years after their “burning platforms” strategic reset, and they’ll be pretty much back where they started: abandoning three legacy platforms, pinning their hopes on a new one starting from zero market share. How much cash have they got left?

Nokia: “You know, we might be in a spot of bother after all”

(All over the internet for the last couple of days, but for best subhead I must link to the Register.)

Nokia 700, iPhone 4 (with bumper), Galaxy NexusBeing a contrary type, I recently bought a Nokia 700. You can see it on the top of the pile in the photo on the right.

It runs Nokia (Symbian) Belle, an unevenly-supported platform that started at a disadvantage and is now to be abandoned by a dying company. The software is not this phone’s high point, though it’s better than you’d expect from that description.

The hardware is fantastic. It’s just the right size, shape, and construction. I resisted the iPhone and friends for years because they were so clumsy, but the 700 is small and thin enough to fit in any jeans pocket while still being entirely manageable with the Swype keyboard. (There are small Android phones, but they’re all horrible.)

And it’s a more beautiful object than any other phone I’ve seen. It isn’t any nicer to hold, or more practical: there are Android and WP7 phones that are better in the hand, and the 700 has no parallel lines in its design and so is impossible to balance satisfactorily on any edge. But it has the air of a weird tablet passed to us by aliens in its thinness, lightness, solidity, and amenability to single-handed hold and operation.

What Nokia Did Back Then

The way Nokia made their mark, back when mobile phones first became popular—in the mid to late 90s—was by producing desirable hardware with a recognisable operating system.

Nokia pioneered the idea of a consistent operating system for phones. They made a series of devices all working in much the same way, at a time when others were producing new interfaces for every device, and they had a sensible and comprehensible structure for information and functions on screen.

Nokia quickly became the phone you could actually understand, while producing the desirable hardware that made them the phone you yearned to own. This is just the combination we see in Apple now, and it’s the combination that Nokia lost sight of during their years of pushing capable but complex Symbian systems.

Of course, Nokia have now managed to pull Symbian back into a position where ordinary people can enjoy it—four or five years too late.

Our Frightful Infrastructure

I had never used Symbian before buying this phone.

I had used Windows Phone 7, and I liked it. So I could see where Nokia were going and why.

I knew that the WP7 ecosystem is entirely owned by Microsoft. You get your new phone and switch it on; you’re asked to register a Windows Live account (or whatever they’re calling it now); and you’re entirely managed within Microsoft’s network of services. Music, games, video, support services, what have you: it’s all Microsoft.

What I hadn’t realised was just how much infrastructure Nokia already had around Symbian. You get your new Nokia 700 and, as soon as you try to do anything acquisitive with it, you’re asked to register a Nokia account. You use entirely Nokia services for music, games, video, support services, and what have you. And they work quite well.

As an ignorant observer, I had thought that Nokia was deferring to Microsoft in these services because they didn’t have them already. I now realise the switch to Microsoft services is simply a change of landscape. They already did have all of these things working fine.

But the way Nokia ran these services was terribly labour-intensive. Their dependency on mobile phone carriers meant they had to organise separate billing and delivery plans several times over for every region. Delivering OS updates appears to be an almost impossible task: my phone is still waiting for updates that Nokia announced, and I know that other editions of the same phone received, over four months ago.

I’ve been in touch with Nokia support several times about failed music downloads and missing OS updates, and they’ve never been able to tell me anything useful about what was really going on. The system has been creeping past its operators on both flanks.

Can Nokia recover?

No. Though everyone is saying that, so I’m hardly original.

Nokia have clearly discarded Symbian, which seems to be both expensive to run and without a place in the market. (I wonder how long the services for my lovely phone will keep running for.)

That means they have only two totally incompatible platforms to manage, instead of three: S40 running Mobile Java, and WP7 running managed .NET code.

WP7 is not going to succeed for Nokia. I like it, but not only does it look like a hard sell for consumers, it’s also an operating system that people talk about more than they talk about the phones.

What I mean by that is: Nokia are trying to sell phones with a nearly two-year-old operating system called Windows Phone 7. Delightful though it is to use, it has no very immediate appeal to consumers in terms of immediate visuals or capabilities so the publicity talks about the operating system rather than simply presenting the phones. We know that the phones are running Windows.

Meanwhile, Microsoft are already talking up Windows 8. Anyone in a position to influence reluctant consumers is probably already thinking of WP7 as a strange and not necessarily compatible predecessor of Windows 8, whatever that turns out to be. (We’ve seen a lot of Windows 8, but it’s proposed that it will run on phones as well as PCs and tablets [isn't it?], and we haven’t seen any of that yet.)

Nokia are in the awkward position of betting their entire business on explicitly promoting an operating system that seems to have been already superseded by its producers.

No, I think they’ve had it. It’s been a long time coming, but I just don’t see the way out. Let’s hope I’m wrong, because it’s terribly painful to watch a strong European company fall apart because they couldn’t understand the nature of competition from a formerly minor American rival. Damn it.