The “Rescuing Nokia” Plan

For those following Nokia, this article from The Register is a must read.

The corporate culture of Nokia is unique. Like any large company, it has an overwhelming number of processes, political battles, and organizational changes. At time it feels like a monstrous robot trudging along, yet there is a super-computer at its core. A “human cloud” for lack of a better explanation. The analysis that’s done within this cloud, not to mention the innovations conceptually developed there, would astound those that only associate Nokia with cheap, plastic phones. Sadly, this intelligent cloud can’t always get successfully navigates its own robot arms and legs.

So when Juhani Risku, the former Nokia employee profiled in the article, gives his assessment of Nokia’s problems, I couldn’t help but think, “yes…Yes…YES!!!” It’s easy to dismiss him as someone pointing out problems who has no power to solve them, but his message is almost spot on. Risku believes Nokia has become a “a risk-averse bureaucracy” that “stifles innovation” and “makes progress slow or non-existent.” To make it worse, he’s revealed that competitors brought to market ideas that were born in Nokia, but had “realis[ed] them better”.  I happen to agree with him on two sources of this problem.

The first is what Risku calls Nokia’s “obsession with data gathering.” Even a few days inside of Nokia will overwhelm anyone with the immensity of research available to the average employee. In some cases, it’s so bad that one could make a compelling argument for either side of an issue by referencing this or that research report. I do believe senior management had sifted through this data and chosen their direction, but from middle-management down, the often contradicting sources of information could easily immobilize a discussion. Not knowing which side to take, many of us stood still waiting for more data, typically waiting until market conditions validated one viewpoint over the other. There was a line out the door of people willing to make a decision, but culturally, the lack of enough market data prevented many from taking the risk. Since the mobile market is constantly in flux, many new markets just wont show up in a research report. As such, Nokia has accepted to be a fast-follower in certain  trends and development.

Second, Risku takes aim at Nokia’s segmentation and consumer-driven approach towards device creation. As a marketing professional I have a firm respect and appreciation for market segmentation and consumer-facing decisions, so don’t misunderstand my points here.  Up until the last six months of my tenure at Nokia, I drank the segmentation and consumer-focus Kool-Aid just as much as the next person. Nokia’s segmentation strategy offered a common understanding across markets and presented us a vocabulary on how to address them. In that way, it was absolutely fantastic. However, it fails similarly around the “data gathering” issue, that being it could not address markets that were not there. I recognize the obviousness of this statement, but I came to the conclusion that much of our segmentation had created pockets of walled-in thinking. Much of what should have been used to attack markets, became used to attack new ideas and innovation that did not fit within the model. I don’t believe any of the originators of our segmentation had this thinking in mind as it was created, it just developed as such.

Worse, it had the debilitating effect of limiting innovation. To clarify, it did not eliminate it, but may have restricted the scope of many to only think within narrowly defined customer segments and experiences. Many of us attempted to match everything in the phone to the desired segment: design, appearance, pricing, promotion, etc. Contrast this with the current Apple/Google approach that provide a strong platform with a broad ecosystem of innovative 3rd parties. Apple specifically has honed its offering around the user experience, but basically has left each user to define himself by mixing and matching applications. To put it another way, Apple/Google offered everyone a blank sheet of paper with the developer ecosystem providing the crayons.  Nokia unfortunately is left writing in the margins of an old over-used piece of paper (Symbian), with nothing to show for it than a black pen and some white-out.

The patriotic side of me may bleed through here, but one issue I did take with Risku is his almost venomous view of the “American business culture” whose “arrogance and aggression” that be believes “paralysed Nokia.” I can agree it would be near impossible for an American outsider to easily walk into Nokia and make changes without destroying value left and right. However, my judgement is not based off the belief that the American way-of-thinking is inherently wrong. It’s more more due to the complexity that Nokia has built around itself that almost requires a sherpa to navigate. Much of this was built on an arrogance of “not invented here” that makes Nokia bulky in places, extremely limiting its agility to respond to changing markets. I wont even get into how European-centric development arrogance has repeatedly cost Nokia the North American market.

Risku misses the point in regard to aggression as well. The first thing I noticed about Nokia, versus my previous employer Intel, was its lack of aggression. My feeling then, and even now to a certain extent, was that Nokia waited for markets to develop while Intel aggressively went out and built them. Sure, Intel has lost a few along the way (WiMax, Network Processors, etc.), but when it wins, it wins big because it builds the market the suit them. Qualcomm, a historical thorn in Nokia’s side, also takes this approach by building markets where Nokia is too bloated to move or too arrogant to think they can be knocked off their block. So while Risku wants to make aggression sound negative, it is also a source for many companies to continually innovate, seek out new markets, and adapt. If you watch Nokia’s attempt at broad ecosystem creation, you’ll quickly see how the lack of directed aggression hinders much of their progress.

So as a former employee, I’d like to say that Nokia is still an extremely powerful competitor in the market. Yes, many newer entrants are getting the press, but none of them yet does as many things as consistently well as Nokia. They all have exploitable weaknesses that Nokia is capable of addressing. If and when Nokia fixes its smartphone problem, you’ll see many customers come back to them. There is a still a strong brand preference out there for them to rebuild upon if done sooner than later. Their reach across markets and relationships with operators and consumers is still there. The giant robot may be slow in its lumbering, but it’s still a giant robot that could still potentially smash its giant hands down.

And finally, the people inside Nokia are still some of the brightest and most talented in the industry, if not the world. Many of them are quiet leaders in their respective fields, and most of them have an intense desire to see Nokia return to its former glory (and values). Obviously some of them are still my friends, so I’m biased. However, I can assure you that if Nokia can put together a vision of the future for its people to truly rally behind, you’ll see a newly rejuvenated company roaring back across all their markets.

I wish them good luck.

Where’s Ovi?

It’s one thing to be lagging behind certain competitors, it’s a completely other thing not to be even mentioned. So when Gizmodo did their Detailed State of the Apps report, one major vendor’s app store was missing. Worse, Palm was listed twice, once under the HP brand.

I love you Nokia, you paid my bills for many years. I can wax nostalgic on your great North American past. I can make an argument that your current state is due to the rise of operator brands. I can even still believe you have the best interests of your consumer in mind.

What I can’t do is justify how you lost so much mindshare…

So I wonder, how does any company, especially one with the marketing resources of Nokia re-build a relationship with its lost consumers?

nciku: Not for Minors?

I’ve been in China for over five years and my Chinese is still only at a conversational level. I’m nowhere near fluent. So since I’m not a natural language learner, I need to spend a little time each day either attempting to improve my language skills or just trying to prevent losing them.

I’ve been using nciku for about a year or so now. I find their site to have such a confusing layout that for the most part it’s completely unusable to me. For looking up vocabulary words though, it’s my #1 destination. The ability to input English, pinyin, or hanzi is incredibly useful, so decided to check out their iPhone Chinese-English dictionary application.

The first thing that struck me was the price. Considering their website and MSN bot is for free, $4.99 seemed a little too pricey; especially since I have a free dictionary from another vendor already. But as I was leaving the page, I noticed this:

Rated 12+ for the following:

  • Infrequent/Mild Profanity or Crude Humor
  • Infrequent/Mild Alcohol, Tobacco, or Drug Use or References

So I have to ask, who is making these classifications? Is it self-imposed by nciku or just a general disclaimer put on to every dictionary by Apple? Other English-only dictionaries in the iTunes store don’t have a rating or are rated at ages 9 or above.

Since I don’t know the full story, I wont say this is political-correctness or legal protection gone awry. I’m just going to leave it as the quirky item it seems to be and be glad that I’m old enough to increase my vocabulary with my iPhone. Watch your kids folks, Merriam-Webster might soon get classified as a gateway drug.

Achilles Heel

Another (funnier) perspective to the iPhone antenna debacle…

Apple Antenna Response is Baloney

Yeah, yeah…I know I just posted about what Apple has been doing right, but their response to the antenna issue is tacky at best. I went so far as to even rename my last post from “Why Apple is Successful” to “Why Apple Has Been Successful” just to better reflect my sentiment. Be ready, for the rest of this post, I’m going to reference Engadget quite a bit.

The impulsive side of me appreciates the responses of Nokia and RIM to Apple’s press conference. I can vouch first-hand about Nokia’s historical commitment to antenna performance and call quality. Nokia has 100s of phones where they’ve solved this problem, Apple has 4.

But I really love the veracity by which the RIM co-CEOs have responded:

Apple’s attempt to draw RIM into Apple’s self-made debacle is unacceptable. Apple’s claims about RIM products appear to be deliberate attempts to distort the public’s understanding of an antenna design issue and to deflect attention from Apple’s difficult situation…

During that time, RIM has avoided designs like the one Apple used in the iPhone 4 and instead has used innovative designs which reduce the risk for dropped calls, especially in areas of lower coverage…

Apple clearly made certain design decisions and it should take responsibility for these decisions rather than trying to draw RIM and others into a situation that relates specifically to Apple.

Pay attention to that last statement. My experience has shown that antenna issues almost always involve some sort of design decision, usually along the lines of “pretty vs performance”. They are difficult decisions, obviously one in which Apple has chosen “pretty”. On some levels, it’s hard to blame them as they have a larger-than-life reputation around their design. Metal trim plus antennas are just troublesome, not impossible, but troublesome. Apple should have seen this was coming, especially with the reputation ATT’s network has.

That said, if Apple has issues in the U.S.A. just wait until they begin sales to countries (e.g. China Unicom) whose carriers would love to only have ATT-esque issues. Here in China, I have to walk to the window to take calls (with clarity) on my iPhone 3GS. I imagine I’ll need to strap myself to the building and hang outside to get the iPhone 4 to work.

So Apple, when someone asks you if anything could have been done, don’t try to deflect the question by saying people don’t want big phones. You are right in some regard, but you’re basically telling people that their phone is more “shiny object” than “phone”.  This is insulting to people like me who actually enjoy using your products because the experience is best in class, not because it brings out the color in my eyes. Sadly, the general populace will miss the fact that your competitor’s “big phones” are due to larger display sizes increasingly common on mobile phones. Not everyone fits into one bucket.

And please try not use misleading statistics in the future. The phone has hardly been on the market for more than two months. You haven’t even really begun to really see customer feedback yet. Give it a few more weeks/months and I bet that number of yours creeps up closer to the 3GS.

In the end, I think Apple fans will continue to march on regardless of these issues. The core will stay fairly intact through this mess, but I’m guessing those on the Apple fringe are going to gripe the most. It’ll be interesting to see if this has a huge impact to the iPhone sales growth rate though, as their handling of this situation will probably tarnish a bit of their shine. I also suspect that many in the core (and possibly the press) will actually re-spin Nokia and RIM’s response into being childish rebukes for having lost share to Apple. There might be some truth in that, but deep down, I do believe they are attempting to defend some of their hard-earned reputation from the misdirection and mudslinging coming out of the Apple camp today.

I hope all the iPhone 4 buyers who get the free covers enjoy their “Christmas in July”…

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