An Open Letter to Stephen Elop and Steve Ballmer

Dear Steves,

Normally, I try to avoid writing open letters to anyone–they’re a pretty stale journalistic convention. But the two of you used an open letter to confirm that Nokia and Microsoft have agreed to a strategic partnership that will make Windows Phone the software foundation of Nokia’s smartphone strategy. So another open letter feels like an appropriate way to respond.

So here’s my initial advice, which, as with all open letters, I’m sure you’ve been eagerly awaiting…

Don’t apologize. Lots of people–such as this guy–think your partnership is destined to fail. Some compare it to famous lackluster partnerships of the past, such as commenter here who brings up Sears and Kmart. I’m not predicting success…but I also think it’s hasty to dismiss your game plan.¬†Windows Phone isn’t a stinker–it’s a promising and distinctive mobile operating system, albeit one that needs more work. And Nokia still makes some of the nicest phone hardware in the business. I haven’t seen anyone propose an alternative strategy that sounds more logical. You’re making an intelligent gamble given the situation at hand.

Finish Windows Phone 7. I like it, but it’s like the first versions of the iPhone OS and Android–it’s at least two major upgrades away from being done. And unlike its competitors which showed up earlier, it faces daunting competition from extremely well-established, high-quality players. It needs a lot more than cut and paste: For instance, its browser is still uncompetitive. And it has to get a lot better really quickly.

Build something that feels like it came from one company. Nearly all of the best phones ever made–from early BlackBerrys and Treos to the iPhone–were produced by a company that designed its own hardware and wrote its own software. You won’t have that advantage, but you can do your darndest to compensate by working fanatically to create something so seamless that it feels like it’s the work of one team. These shouldn’t be more Windows Phone handsets that happen to come from Nokia, or Nokia phones that happen to run Windows Phone–they need to be unique.

Re-enter the US. Nokia has an extraordinarily low profile in this country–quite a change from the good old days of a decade or more again when it was nearly synonymous with “good cell phone.” It’s possible to be a very large phone company without competing stateside, but it’s harder–and it’s particularly hard to grab mindshare. The moment you’ve built a really great handset, bring it here and promote the heck out of it.

Be humble. Very, very humble. Hubris is in the DNA of both of your companies–some of it seeped into your letter. (“There are other mobile ecosystems. We will disrupt them.”) That’s okay, but if I were you guys, I’d try to reduce expectations, not raise them. I haven’t seen any commentator say that your deal is a game-changer of historic proportions–Robert Scoble is excited but guardedly so–so it doesn’t need to be change the world overnight to be judged as a success. Unless you promise everyone that it will be disruptive.

That’s it for now. Good luck, and I promise–this is the last open letter I’ll write to you.

Regards,

–Harry


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