How iPhone inspired Google kicked Nokia and Microsoft butts, to take over the world with Android. Pt1

To say that the rise of Android over the last year was impressive, would be an understatement.

A year ago, Android still was  more of a paper tiger, then an actual full fledged mobile platform. About this time last year, with six months on the market, only 1 million G1/Dream handsets had shipped. The second (HTC Magic) and third (Samsung Galaxy) smartphones were just showing up.

Android 1.5/Cupcake, running these devices, wasn’t yet a truly stable and versatile OS, worthy of even 1.0 number, in a traditional software labeling sense. In a post “Understanding Android”, I called Android 1.5 – a Release Candidate version, and that’s precisely what it turned out to be. The first true, market and vendor adoption ready version of Android, will not come until September – Android 1.6/Donut release.

And open smartphone OS competition wasn’t too shabby either. (by  “open smartphone OS”,  I mean an OS that is open for adoption by any third party vendor)

There was Windows Mobile, still the smartphone OS of choice for HTC, Samsung, LG, and smartphone wannabes from PC world – Acer, Asus, Toshiba, etc;

There also was Symbian, holding almost 50% smartphone market share on the back of Nokia, but also looking good on Sony Ericsson Idou (later renamed Satio), and Samsung Omnia HD. Nokia has recently bought Symbian Ltd., with a promise to make Symbian OS open source, and freely available to use for all. As a mobile OS, Symbian was much more mature and technologically advanced then Android, had pretty good potential and vendor interest. About the only thing missing, was the new, touch optimized user interface.

Now, fast forward to June 2010.

Windows Mobile is almost dead, hoping to be reborn as Windows Phone 7, and rise to former prominence sometime in the next couple of years.

With the help of Nokia, Symbian is alive and kicking, but it has been completely pushed out of a trend setting, headline grabbing high end smartphone category. And, despite becoming an open source foundation,  Symbian is  still 90%+ Nokia effort, almost completely ignored by every other vendor who matters, with even biggest former fans -Sony Ericsson and Samsung – now refocusing their efforts on Android.

Meanwhile, Google says that they are activating 100K Android devices a day (that’s 35 million devices a year run rate). The number almost doubled in the last 3 months – Google was activating “only” 60K Android handsets a  in February.  Every independent handset vendor has adopted Android as their primary smartphone OS, developer interest and number of Android Apps is soaring, and, it’s almost a forgone conclusion that Android will be the main iPad rival in a newly emerging tablet category.

Quite a shocking change for a period of 12 months. Ever wonder how and why did it happen?

Most of the credit, of course, goes to Google. But it’s smartphone OS competitors –Microsoft and Nokia/Symbian – did their best to help the rise of Android.

Nokia and Microsoft pre-2007. A happy dinosaur couple.

Until 2007, competition in mobile was mainly about design and hardware features. With relatively slow – 18-24 month product/platform development cycles, and general user experience, more or less as an afterthought. Both, Nokia and Microsoft probably had their mobile platform development plans mapped out 5 years into the future, and were working on them at their usual leisurely pace.

Also, as strange as it might sound today, mobile platforms were more of  an afterthought for both Nokia and Microsoft back then.

For Microsoft – Windows Mobile was small, unimportant, management attention and resource strapped division, trying to tack on a tired PC/Windows paradigm on a small screen device. People who mattered in Redmond, were busy milking their Windows and Office cash cows, or chasing another  big trend they already missed – like search, or iPod.

For Nokia – they were (and still remain) a hardware company at heart. S60, and the rest of the software people,  were mostly subordinated to the needs hardware guys, who were producing superb pieces of equipment called NSeries, no competitor could match.

But while Nokia device hardware moved really fast, the software was barely keeping up. The rushed and buggy first versions of firmware became a thing to expect on the latest and greatest Nokia smartphones. Consistency, intuitiveness and ease of use be damned, we’ve got the specs!   Integrating the newest things in Symbian OS (produced by independent Symbian Ltd. back then) into  Nokia handsets? Well,that usually took months, if not years.

Nokia and Microsoft both have seen the coming convergence of computing and mobility. Their Symbian/S60 and Windows Mobile platforms were tools to make the convergence happen. But  both of them were going about it by trying to adapt a decades old device/UX  interaction paradigms to the new category.

Nokia wanted to grow the phone, making it into a multimedia computer. Thus T9 keypad input optimizations, great battery time, focus on device specs, multimedia features, etc;. Microsoft wanted to shrink Windows/PC into a pocketable device, viewing telephony as just one more application. So we got bigger screens, styluses, Windows like navigation and ridiculous WinMo dialer problems.

But neither of these old UX paradigms were well fitted to real mobile user needs, and usually only added additional level of complexity to the device. To most users, Nokia S60 smartphone was just an expensive mobile phone, bought for better camera, looks, or prestige. Windows Mobile handsets were great portable organizers, PDA’s with telephony, for business men and women.

(Btw, this can also explain why Symbian was so much bigger then Windows mobile – a phone has a much bigger target market then a PDA).

Third party apps, or internet browsing? Due to the underpowered browsers, high mobile data rates, crappy user experience  and abysmal discoverability, 90% of smartphone owners neither knew, nor cared about that stuff. Moving  music, pics or videos from/to your PC? With the complexities involved, and time it took to accomplish anything with prepackaged software, who could be bothered to do that?

Neither Microsoft, nor Nokia/Symbian  were too worried about such a mundane thing, as the end user experience:  This is a smartphone for god’s sake. We made it, so it can do all those cool things like browsing, multi-tasking, mobile apps, playing music, etc; And it really does all that. But now, that you shelled out hundreds of $$ for our masterpiece, don’t be a pussy, use a bit of effort and figure out how to 5 click access and use all these amazing features,  by yourself.

Still, that might have turned out OK for Nokia/Symbian, and Microsoft.

After all, in 2006, they were the biggest, strongest kids on the block. Yes, there was Blackbbery, annoyingly interfering with Microsoft’s enterprise ambitions in U.S. There was the Symbian/UIQ camp with Sony Ericsson and Motorola, keeping Nokia smartphone people on their toes. But all these competitors were doing more or less the same thing – adding computer capabilities to a phone, or shrinking a PC. Both, Nokia and Microsoft knew how to play this game and were pretty good at it.

For anyone wanting to make “smart” mobile devices, Symbian and Windows Mobile were the only game in town. Every major player in the industry have chosen one or the other, or even both. Every new entrant  had to chose from them too. Everyone was happy with the status quo, and the chances of some new player, coming up with the better mobile computing/communication device and platform, and messing things up for everyone, were remote at best.

At the end of 2006, there were a lot of rumors that Apple is getting into mobile biz. But, especially after ROKR/iTunes phone demise, Apple’s mobile ambitions were viewed more with curiosity then worry. And while everyone knew that Google may have some ambitions in mobile – they have bought mobile OS a year ago, nobody expected anything from that.

Everything felt familiar, warm and peachy for incumbents in 2006. Just, I imagine, as it was was for the dinosaurs, before the asteroid hit.

Then, in January 2007,  Apple unveiled iPhone, and things changed.

(continued in part 2, coming early next week. So click on some of those buttons below, to subscribe, if you don’t want to miss it)

Author: Stasys Bielinis

While I like to play with the latest gadgets, I am even more interested in broad technology trends. With mobile now taking over the world - following the latest technology news, looking for insights, sharing and discussing them with passionate audience - it's hard to imagine a better place for me to be. You can find me on Twitter as @UVStaska'

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  • Guest

    Where's Part 2?

  • Staska

    It's coming. Next week, I'll try for Monday 🙂

  • Juan

    Apple will always be number 2, it´s their fate.

  • Staska

    Nah. Until Jobs is on top, they will rule the hearts and minds and profits
    in any new industry they are in.

    Inventing and owning new stuff requires that kind of
    vision, ruthlessness and control freakishness.

    But, as the markets mature, and Jobs is retired… We've seen that in PC

  • Manfid31

    good to read… glad once in a while i find those GEMs in sea of crap the web/news/blogs/etc had spawn

  • enyibinakata

    good piece. Nokia dropped the ball indeed. But its far from over, they are just about to take the game a notch higher so dont count Nokia out. Microsoft have also learnt from their mistake and will be back with a vengeance. As for Apple, they are too in love with themselves to notice the winds of change blowing around them – they have followers not customers so they will be ok; niche but yet very profitable thanks to many who have more money than sense.

    Google look the real winner out of all this, they have killer internet services, gmail , maps and youtube and of course, search. Those guys are such a knockout moving at the speed of light. As for us consumers, we remain in control.

  • Staska

    Well,you are mostly right. Nokia and Microsoft can be back with
    a vengeance. Will they be? That's a question.

    Mobile market dynamics favor them overall – nobody who matters – other
    vendors, carriers, want to end up with a singe dominant player (Google), and
    they both have resources to stay in the game. .

    On the other hand, both, MSFT and NOK are much too slow adapting to changes.
    And Google seems to have this nack for ultrafast, incremental software
    innovation, that put them on top with Android for now.

    Still, Google was so fast and successful in mobie, because they started from
    scratch, and as things mature they will slow down (as they
    already signaled), so Nokia and Microsoft will have a chance to catch up in
    2011. .

    Anyway, that's part of my argument in the part 2 of this story 🙂