Stephen Baker

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What Symbian's fall says for Apple

January 27, 2013News

There was a time, at the turn of the century, when Nokia resembled today's Apple. The company dominated the cell phone market. It ran its factories flat out and could negotiate the best terms and prices from suppliers. For a few years, Nokia made all of the profits in the industry. Everyone else, from Motorola to Sony, was losing money in cell phones. 

But to extend its dominance into the smart phone era, Nokia needed to adjust. As cell phones evolved, many expected the industry to follow the pattern established with PCs: In this scenario, the companies making the innards--the software and chips--would run off with the profits, leaving manufacturers as little more than glorified assembly shops. This was the dynamic that propelled Microsoft and Intel skyward, while pushing IBM out of the PC business and relegating Apple to a struggling niche role.

The key was to develop a software platform under the control of the phone-makers. So Nokia invited its competitors to join a consortium, and together they launched Symbian. I covered the launch, in 1999, for BusinessWeek. Researching the story, I met the key strategist for the company, an articulate Dane named Juha Christensen. As Juha described it, Symbian was the hope Europe's tech economy. Europeans, who were more advanced in cell phones, were positioned to lead the wireless stage of the Internet. This would be bigger and more transformative than the desktop version. But the phonemakers had to keep the computer companies at bay. The biggest threat was Microsoft.

A year later, Juha left Symbian… for Microsoft. I wrote that story, too. He said Symbian was a mess. What he and I didn't know at the time was that Microsoft was also destined to flounder in mobile, and that a gadget that seemed to have nothing to do with cell phones--Apple's iPod--would eventually evolve from a music machine, to a touch-screen browser, to the world's leading smart phone. We also never could have guessed that struggling Nokia would eventually hire a Microsoft executive, Stephen Elop, as CEO, and that he would lead the two former titans into an alliance of underdogs. Today, Nokia's Lumia, with Windows 8, appears a last-chance bid for both companies to rescue their future in the mobile Internet.

Nothing is clear, though, because the forces that bring dramatic change do not progress from the story lines we know, but instead hatch from ideas that we don't yet see, or even imagine. If you ask analysts about the smart-phone market five years from now, they're likely to feature today's dominent players, led by Apple, Google, and Samsung, just as an entire industry once saw a future defined by Nokia and Microsoft. Things change, often dramatically.

For example, when I was interviewing Juha back in London, it didn't occur to me that 13 years later we would be friends on a social network, that I would see his update pop up (on my phone) about the extinction of Symbian. His update was followed by reminiscences from his old colleagues. I added a memory of my own, and asked him if his departure marked the beginning of the end. He responded (and told me I could post it.)

The beginning of the end occurred half a year before, when Nokia went from supporting Symbian as an independent venture, driven by the usual entrepreneurship, opportunism, paranoia and fear that propel start-ups forward, to treating the company as a buyers cooperative, restricting its ability to control the user experience and programmability.

The seeds to what became Nokia Series 60 were sown then, and eventually led to the trouble which Nokia now, fortunately, is well into recovering from, ironically as a beneficiary of the Windows Phone platform we pioneered at Microsoft.

I love this industry. Never a dull moment.

***

Incidentally, I just came across this excellent post by Eugene Wei about Apple, Amazon and the Beauty of Low Margins. If you have 10 minutes and want to explore the strategies of these companies, it's worth a read. (hat tip @timoreilly) Also, Henry Blodget analyzes Apple's fallen stock, and says it could be a bargain. He does caution that Apple could follow the route of other humbled giants, such as Nokia. But he says that Apple could also settle into a prosperous slower-growth mode, in which it rewards investors with dividends. In other words, he is seeing a transition for Apple from a growth to a value stock. 


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