By Harry McCracken | Monday, July 6, 2009 at 2:43 pm
Gizmodo’s Matt Buchanan has posted a review of Nokia’s iPhone-like N97, with the provocative headline “Nokia N97 Review: Nokia is Doomed.” At first blush, it sounds like he can’t really mean that he thinks Nokia could be headed for extinction. Comic exaggeration, right? But the more I thought about it, the more I came to the conclusion that the headline’s a perfectly reasonable one. I’m not predicting Nokia’s death myself, but neither do I take it as a given that the company has a long future in the smartphone business.
Matt’s conclusion on the N97 is that it’s a respectable piece of hardware but that its Symbian S60 Fifth Edition operating system and Ovi Store application repository don’t have what it takes to compete with their counterparts on the iPhone. Judging from the time I’ve spent with an N97, he’s right. Cell phones in 2009 are really software/service combos that happen to have hardware wrapped around them, but Nokia is still racing to catch with the modern era–as represented not only by the iPhone but also Google’s Android and Palm’s Pre phone and WebOS software.
(A bunch of other major phone companies, such as HTC, LG, Motorola, and Samsung are hopping aboard the Android bandwagon, but Nokia is denying rumors that it has any plans to build an Android phone.)
Nokia may be the biggest phone company the world has ever known, but we’re just entering the age in which smartphones will largely replace both PCs and phones as we’ve known them. It’s as big a technological sea change as we’ve ever seen. And when those sea changes happen, being an incumbent means very little.
Actually, history shows that incumbency usually puts you at a disadvantage. Mainframe companies didn’t dominate the minicomputer biz. Minicomputer companies not only didn’t dominate microcomputers, but mostly collapsed, period. The major developers of DOS applications ran into deep trouble when Windows came along; the major developers of Windows applications don’t rule the software platform known as the World Wide Web. And so far, the most important player in smartphones is Apple, a company that’s only made phones for a couple of years.
Apple isn’t one of the spunky startups that usually slaughter humongous corporations when the world of tech goes through one of its periodic reinventions. It’s more than thirty-three years old; not only has it seen a heck of a lot of history, but it was once written off as moribund. It’s a little as if minicomputer pioneer Digital hadn’t just founded the search-engine business with AltaVista, but had managed to turn AltaVista into today’s Google.
Strangely enough, the fact that Apple long ago lost the war for personal-computer dominance to Microsoft put it in a much better position to make the leap to smartphones than if the Mac had somehow conquered the PC market. An Apple that controlled the PC industry would have been too large and too invested in existing products and business models to come up with the iPod; an Apple that never launched the iPod and iTunes might never have decided to enter the phone business at all, let alone changed it forever.
Of course, the fact that the rest of the industry is scrambling to get to where the iPhone was a year ago doesn’t guarantee a rosy future for Apple, any more than the original 1984 Mac’s innovations meant anything for the company’s prospects in the 1990s. Nor does the rough condition of Symbian and Ovi today mean that Nokia isn’t working on truly impressive versions even now, or that it won’t dump them for something different and better.
Anyone who thinks he or she knows for sure who will dominate smartphones in, say, 2014 is either a whole lot smarter or a whole lot dumber than I am. But right now, it’s easier to sketch out scenarios in which Apple maintains its lead than it is to figure out one in which Nokia crushes it. And a future that involves Nokia pulling out of the smartphone industry is no more wacky an idea than the idea of IBM pulling out of the PC business once seemed…