Nokia listened too much to mobile operators | asymco

My thanks to Robert van Apeldoorn, journalist for Trends Tendances Magazine, for asking good questions. My responses are reproduced below. The article (in French) is titled “Nokia a trop écouté les réseaux télécoms” and can be found in the June 23rd edition of the magazine along with more details in the article “Comment Nokia peut-il renaître?”.

-About your post “Does the phone market forgive failure”, that puts forward the idea that all mobile device vendors experiencing losses never really recover… It seems that this possible “rule” is more severe than in the computer industry. If Digital Equipement, Compaq, WordPerfect did fail, IBM and, yes, Apple, did survive failure and rebound strongly. Do you think that there is a difference between the industries? What makes the failures more lethal in the mobile device market ?

The observation is unique to the mobile phone market and even there it’s only an observation not a rule. It could be that Nokia will be the first mobile phone company that will recover from severe crisis, but history shows it to be very unlikely. I try to shed some light on the reasons why it’s unlikely and what makes the mobile phone market so unforgiving. I think much of the problem rests with the fact that mobile phones are sold indirectly, through intermediaries who are amplifying both success and failure. A company like Apple was able to recover in the computer industry because it launched new products like iPod which could be sold directly to consumers. It had to convince the consumer and only the consumer. Having to convince a distributor, retailer, value added reseller, operator and consumer would be much more difficult. These intermediaries are “institutional” buyers who are risk averse and have low tolerance for untested ideas. Institutional buyers need to think about dealing with other people’s money not just their own so they are doing the right thing from their point of view.

Nokia needs to persuade first operators, then distributors and then consumers that its new products are great (even though maybe the old ones were not so great.) That’s tough. Apple works in the other direction. It creates consumer demand then “sells” that demand to the intermediaries as needed.

These intermediaries (which Steve Jobs famously called “orifices” to the market) amplify the success and failure of a company. For a long time after a product may lose favor with consumers, it will still be sold out of momentum of the channel. But it works the other way as well. If you’re out of the channel, getting in is much harder even if the product may have favor with consumers. This is Microsoft’s problem with Windows Phone. Surveys show that it’s well liked by users, but because Microsoft relies on a long chain of intermediaries, it’s still very hard to get started. Microsoft (and Nokia) rely on momentum to carry them once they get some traction and they plan to spend a lot of money ($ billions) to ensure they get some traction.

-You are absolutely not optimistic at all about the Microsoft partnership (see “in memoriam” post). What could be the best solution? To enhance Symbian platform? Go for Android?  To create a new market with a new kind of device (cf book “How new ideas can win fast”)? Or to go back in the tire business ;-) ?

I only observe and record data and then try to have a theory of why it happens that way. The empirical data shows that Microsoft has been very unsuccessful with mobile. Their partners seem to all have failed and the list is long. So the question is why. Is it just bad luck? Is there something wrong with management? Is it that perhaps there is a failure in strategy or business architecture?  All these are possible hypotheses but I believe the problem is that Microsoft has chosen not to integrate products and to rely on intermediaries at a time when that strategy leads to uncompetitive products. One can understand why they went with this strategy: They believe the scale of the market is so large that they cannot address it like they did with Xbox (building their own complete solution). However, that also means that they are likely to be uncompetitive during the time when integrated products/ecosystems are still not good enough and can iterate more quickly to capture the market. This was true for the iPod where Microsoft tried to license technology to device makers. It was true during the time of Windows Mobile when Microsoft’s OS could not compete with either Blackberry or Symbian and it may still be true today with iPad which redefined what a computer could be.

-What and when, precisely, Nokia did fail to understand how to be remain the market leader and innovator?

I think the answer goes beyond the failures in execution or software development. Being late or sloppy with Symbian evolution is a symptom not a cause of the failure. What Nokia failed to understand is that software and data-oriented products would be built and sold and valued differently than voice-oriented products. Nokia listened very carefully to its best customers, the operators. Operators saw data as a sustaining improvement to their core business and steered Nokia into building “voice-plus” products. Every technology that came out of the laboratories was used to enhance the phone *as a terminal* in a network. Nokia never framed the product as a computer using the network as an accessory the way modern smartphones are valued (or if they did as with Maemo, it was a half-hearted effort). Users today are glued to apps and local media storage and see network access as a necessary inconvenience. The network is only valued in terms of being available.

The re-framing of the device from being a terminal to being the center of user’s focus is the “disruption” which is sweeping aside all the incumbents in the phone space. They all did what was expected of the best managers: they listened very closely to their best customers. That also leads to blindness when the industry itself is being ripped apart by disruptive forces.

-In many aspects, Nokia developed many innovations (email on the phone, music store, smartphone with applications, tv on the phone,..). I remember visiting a Nokia exhibition four or five years ago, in Nice, with a broad and incredible new services range that I almost never see on the Belgian market. Many of the innovations were related (dependant) to a deal with telcos, as network device vendor. Blackberry (RIM) or Apple were more successful. Is it because they had nothing to sell as network device vendors ?

This is answered by the previous answer as well. All of Nokia’s services were designed to help operators improve their business. Operators were the best customers and they ensured Nokia would sell large volumes. But consumers did not see it that way. When a competitor came with an alternative, consumers defected en masse. By then it was too late to change the strategy. It takes years. Nokia still perseveres with this operator-first strategy. Elop continues to say they will do what operators need first. The first thing he did when on the job was visit every major operator. The decision on Windows Phone was based on whether operators saw it as a viable third alternative to the iOS/Android duopoly. Strategy is a matter of priorities not capabilities.

-How is the Nokia strategic problem perceived in Finland ?

The problem is very deeply felt in Finnish society. Nokia was a source of pride for the country and also a large employer both directly and indirectly. I think the impact is felt more psychologically than financially. There was a sense of betrayal when Symbian was publicly “terminated”. Many people criticize present and past management, but I think that anger is misplaced. The failure of a company rarely comes from the failure of character or intelligence. It’s usually a failure of being too rational, too reliant on best practices. What Finns need is a dose of independence in thought and a re-assertion of their willingness to take risks.

The Finnish character is one of independence and perseverance in face of adversity. If Nokia loses its independence then it will need to deal with a lot more adversity. I believe however that innovation will continue. Case in point: Rovio, the maker of Angry Birds is a Finnish company.

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