Innovate Or Die: Nokia’s Long-Drawn-Out Decline

Ask a European about Nokia and a faraway look will come into their eye, a wistful tone creep into their voice. During the late 1990s and early 2000s the 147-year-old Finnish company became a global technology star: the world’s No. 1 mobile maker and the first brand of phone everyone owned. In some emerging markets, so the story goes, the word ‘Nokia’ became a generic term for ‘mobile phone.’ But becoming synonymous with phones is where it all went wrong.

There can be little doubt that Nokia’s mobile glory days are behind it. Korean electronics giant Samsung now occupies the once Mighty Finn’s former throne at the top of the global mobile tree, while Google’s Android OS is the dominant smartphone platform (Android overtook Nokia’s legacy smartphone OS Symbian at the end of 2010, according to Canalys). In Q3 this year, Android was on an average of three out of every four smartphones sold worldwide (IDC’s figure). In October, IDC also noted Nokia’s exit from its top five global smartphone vendors — the first time the Finnish company had dropped out of the top five since IDC started tracking vendors in 2004.

Even if Nokia’s strategy of switching from its legacy smartphone platform, Symbian, to Microsoft’s Windows Phone OS — a strategy it outed in February 2011 — ends up being relatively successful, in terms of profitability and device shipments, the company will never hold sway over the industry as it once did. Now it’s just a passenger on Microsoft’s train. However many fancy apps Nokia adds to Windows Phone, the underlying platform is directed in Redmond, not Espoo.

From Hero To Zero

The Nokia of today is a very different, much diminished company compared to the giant of the mid 2000s. If not a spent force, then certainly a much reduced one: smaller, less profitable, with fewer assets, and resources at its command — and dwindling cash reserves (net cash fell to €3.6 billion by the end of Nokia’s Q3 2012, down from €4.2 billion in its Q2). It doesn’t even own its own headquarters any more: earlier this month it agreed to sell and lease back the building to raise €170 million. Rumours of Nokia being an acquisition target continue to swirl — helped by the company’s historically low share price (currently around $3-$4, it has dropped as low as $1.33 this year) — with Microsoft and even Apple named as potential buyers.

Since Nokia’s first non-Finnish CEO, Stephen Elop, was appointed in 2010, job cuts have been a regular headline story for the company. Nokia now has 44,630 employees in its mobile and location division — down from 60,995 in Q3 last year. The company’s changing shape is the result of Elop ‘realigning’ the business to fit the new strategy of using Microsoft’s OS, rather than developing smartphone platforms in house — leading to various in-house software efforts to be discontinued from Qt, to Meltemi, to Maemo/MeeGo. But Nokia’s CEO has also had to slash costs as profitability plunged.

If you look at any of the handset manufacturers that have had really hard times and they come back — they come back half the company they were.

Nokia swung to an operating loss of €1.073 billion 2011 and has reported a string of quarterly operating losses this year: €1.34 billion in its Q1; €826 million in its Q2; and €576 million in its Q3 — with a “challenging” Q4 expected. A full-year 2012 loss of more than €3 billion looks likely. Combine those losses with dwindling cash reserves — and Nokia’s apparent failure to ignite significant consumer interest in its Windows Phone-based Lumia line of smartphones and the company’s very survival looks to be at stake. Nokia hasn’t broken out sales of its new Windows Phone 8 devices yet, but sales of WP 7.x devices have been unimpressive to date: Nokia reported 2.9 million Lumia sales in its Q3; 4 million in its Q2; and more than 2 million in its Q1. (For context, worldwide sales of smartphones rose to 169.2 million units in Q3 alone this year, according to Gartner.)

Yet wind the clock back five years and Nokia was riding high as master of its own mobile hardware and software, and a hugely profitable business (its 2007 operating profit was €7.985 billion). Today it’s neither profitable  nor in control of its own destiny. Its smartphone business depends on Microsoft’s fortunes. And, in a market dominated by Android and iOS, even a company as typically bullish as Microsoft can only talk about trying to become the “third ecosystem” (in the event, Windows Phone still trails Symbian’s global marketshare: 2.4 percent vs. 2.6 percent, according to Gartner’s Q3 figures). In short: Nokia had it all, and now it’s gone.

“Overall if you look at the dominant market position that Nokia had – 40 percent marketshare, if you go back a couple of years — there is no way even with a successful Windows Phone 8 story, and even with the strategy they laid out, that they’re ever going to return to that kind of marketshare, that kind of dominance,” says Adam Leach, principal analyst at Ovum.

Leach is better placed than most to comment on Nokia’s decline, having previously worked at Symbian – including on projects such as the Nokia Communicator: arguably the world’s first commercial smartphone (a device that included the ability to download apps — some 10 years before Apple ‘invented’ the iPhone App Store).

“Even if they achieve their plans and achieve them well, it’s unrealistic to think Nokia is going to come back anywhere near like the company they were. If you look at any of the handset manufacturers that have had really hard times and they come back — they come back half the company they were,” he adds, name-checking the likes of Motorola and Sony Ericsson.

Nokia’s Big Misstep

So where did it all go wrong for Nokia? The cause of the company’s decline looks very simple with hindsight: Nokia should have moved off its smartphone platform Symbian and onto its next-generation platform, MeeGo, much sooner than it did. Years sooner.

By the time Nokia released its first MeeGo-powered smartphone – the N9, in 2011 — it was far too late to compete with Android and iOS. In any case, by that point Nokia had already publically committed to Microsoft and in starting down the Windows Phone path, Elop made the decision to abandon in-house alternatives such as MeeGo – meaning the N9 was effectively

“Nokia needed to have MeeGo ready to go into the market two years or even now perhaps three years ago,” says Leach. “They needed to be on their new platform probably round about 2008, 2009. If you think 2008 was just when Android entered the market, it was just a year after iPhone was finding its feet. Nokia really needed to be there at that point with its platform for growth — offering some kind of computing experience on the device.”

Leach describes the mindset he encountered when working at Symbian, between 1999 and 2004. “Symbian was always very phone-centric,” he tells TechCrunch. “In my own experience of being at Symbian working with Nokia there was always a frustration of [Nokia saying] ‘it’s got to be a phone first, it’s a phone, phones sell.’ And we’d be saying ‘there is different stuff you can do, you can adopt more of these kind of computing paradigms’ — and they really didn’t want to hear that.”

The core problem that brought Nokia low is not unusual for successful public companies that have worked their way into a position of marketplace dominance over a period of years (see also: BlackBerry maker RIM, for instance). Nokia’s business was cooking on gas in the mid 2000s, with massive profits and phone shipments keeping their shareholders happy and clamouring for more of the same. But this success evidently made it  harder for them to change their business to react to the looming threats from internet-focused companies. You could also argue their view of the landscape ahead was clouded by their “blinkered, phone first” view, as Leach puts it.

Point to the CEO — apart from Steve Jobs – who relishes telling the shareholders it’s time to retire the gravy train, and start out afresh on a hand-cranked cart. But that, in effect, is what Nokia needed to have begun doing in the mid 2000s to survive disruption by a new generation of web companies who understood the future was data, not voice.

“What Nokia was looking at was their feature phones, which were still selling healthily then,” says Leach. “That mid-range feature phone market was the sweet spot and [their view was that] Symbian had to, in some way, be a feature phone with a little bit extra. That thinking really stifled them. And the problem then, when they realised they needed to do more, was that Symbian was a bit too old and wasn’t extendable enough to do the things they really needed to do.”

IHS Screen Digest analyst Daniel Gleeson makes a similar point: Nokia wasn’t thinking big enough when it really counted – and without a grand plan they weren’t able to act decisively to fix the strategic weaknesses that were being exploited by others. “Their emphasis was on incremental innovation of existing products rather than aggressively pushing a disruptive innovation,” he says.

“Their smartphone strategy was muddled at the time to put it politely,” he adds. “Symbian was the principal OS, but with Maemo/MeeGo also in development; Nokia was far from clear in its long-term commitment to either platform. Even if it could execute well, overly risk-averse management prevented Nokia making this decision. By attempting to juggle both, Nokia showed another fundamental problem, it did not understand the importance of ecosystems.”

The Significance Of Software

Dig a little deeper, and Nokia’s problems with its smartphone OS strategy are evidently problems with software more generally. The company fundamentally didn’t get software, says Gleeson — so they didn’t understand the crucial significance of apps and building an ecosystem around apps. “Nokia has almost always produced high quality hardware; but it was its software that was the weakness,” he says. “Nokia vastly underestimated the importance of third-party applications to the smartphone proposition. Each Symbian UI required its own custom build of the OS which limited the addressable market of any third-party apps.”

“Furthermore, Nokia had a blasé attitude towards compatibility of apps; breaking backwards compatibility on OS upgrades on multiple occasions e.g. S60 third edition, Windows Phone 8; and developing phones incapable of using some games available for earlier devices (e.g. Nokia 500, Lumia 610),” he adds. “Consumers are attracted to smartphones for their ability to be more than just communication tools, and so the lack of apps hinders adoption. One can simply look at the lack of some key apps such as Spotify from Nokia’s latest flagship as a continuation of this problem (Spotify is available on the Lumia 800 and 900 however).”

Nokia has almost always produced high quality hardware; but it was its software that was the weakness.

Gleeson argues that Nokia still hasn’t fixed its attitude to software — evident in the recent issues with the schism between WP 7.5 and 8. “This is an issue that Nokia has not fully addressed yet,” he says. “While this may seem to be Microsoft’s problem now, Nokia were well aware that there was going to be a break from WinPho 7.5 to 8.”

It’s not too surprising that a company that started life as a paper mill, way back in the 1800s, might be more comfortable with physical, tangible things, than digital stuff. But the problem for Nokia wasn’t just that it was slow on the update where software was concerned, it was also now competing with companies born and bred in the digital era – with bits and bytes in their blood.

Nokia’s decision to open source Symbian in 2008 to try to compete with Android was of course too little too late. The platform itself was not competitive with next-gen rivals in the ways that counted: It still put the phone function first, rather than Internet-connected services. Regardless of how technically powerful Symbian was – something die-hard Symbian fans will always point out (yes it could have apps and ‘true’ multitasking) – there was no getting away from the problem that it was legacy technology, built in and for an earlier mobile era when phones were phones first, not pocket computers.

As Gartner analyst Carolina Milanesi puts it, Nokia was guilty of “trying to fix Symbian for too long.” It was also too busy worrying about not upsetting the apple cart of its current customers to start making the disruptive changes needed to win future ones, she says. Or to put it another way, Nokia was fiddling while its platform burned.

Foresight without leadership

Despite clinging on far too long to Symbian — and not having the quicksilver thinking of a native web company — you can’t accuse Nokia of lacking ideas. Nokia has a history of coming up with new stuff. The company started life as a paper mill in 1865 but it didn’t stick with pulp forever, turning its hand to cranking out rubber boots, tyres and cables, among other things, before moving on to electronics and finally mobile phones.

nokia-tyresIn mobile too Nokia has not been short of new ideas. The company pioneered various key mobile concepts that are now absolutely mainstream — from cameraphones and music mobiles to apps and tablets. But despite getting its futuregazing right in one sense – by coming up with the ideas in the first place, often years before others got there — Nokia the company was still stuck in the past, mired in its phone-first mindset, which meant it failed to recognise and deliver on the true potential of its creations.

Nokia’s R&D held the key to unlocking the future success of its business – but the corporate culture of the company failed to turn futuregazing into an agile strategy to advance its business by breaking with the lucrative present. Without visionary leadership and exceptional execution good ideas are just a series of disconnected dreams. There’s no doubt Nokia had plenty of dreamers within its walls but it desperately needed a visionary CEO capable of turning its ideas into the future of the business. Nokia had done it with paper and boots and even mobile phones, but the leap to mobile data proved a leap too far.

“The ‘phone first’ mindset ran through everything they did,” says Leach. “And although the R&D guys came up with some great innovative things they were slow to get those to market. So they were very good at coming up with concepts – ‘this is what the future’s going to look like; in the meantime what’s selling in the market is these feature phones with additional Internet capabilities,’ and they were kind of caught between the two. And I think they never really got that leap right to R&D working to breed products to market as opposed to just being all the blue sky activity.”

“It’s difficult to comment on Nokia’s internal management structures, as all I have to go on is speculative and the complaints of disgruntled ex-employees but it is likely that issues [such as underestimating the importance of apps and ecosystems] would be symptoms of a management with no clear long-term vision and the resulting in-fighting between product teams,” adds Gleeson.

Leach points to the example of the Nokia Communicator – a pioneering forerunner of today’s smartphones, which launched way back in 1996 — as an example of how Nokia failed to deliver on its own great potential. While the device included the ability to download apps, Nokia missed the opportunity to capitalise on them long before anyone else could have.  “Nokia felt that downloading apps and all of that was only something a minority of people would do,” he says. “It wasn’t really the main point, no one would get that concept. And then a couple of years later you have Apple doing a mainstream TV commercial about downloading apps to your phone.

“Now the tragedy really is that Nokia had that capability. If they had been a bit more confident with it – confident that this is where the future was, they could have had that market, they could have been there. But looking at that TV ad of downloading apps to your phone there’s no way anyone in Nokia would have ever believed that it was mainstream enough to get to do that sort of advertising around it.”

Nokia had the scale, the connections with manufacturers, the relationships with operators and the brand strength to ‘out iPhone the iPhone’ — if it had reacted fast enough.

“Nokia’s cardinal sin was not as many would suspect lack of foresight about the development of the market such as touchscreens, large displays and tablets,” adds Gleeson. “Nokia had the scale, the connections with manufacturers, the relationships with operators and the brand strength to ‘out iPhone the iPhone’ — if it had reacted fast enough. Samsung’s success has shown that being a ‘fast follower’ is a viable strategy for a market leader to avoid being usurped by early movers.”

The key line there is if it had reacted fast enough. Nokia was simply not capable of matching the speed of innovation of a Google or an Apple – hardware was in its blood, not software. So, as Gartner’s Milanesi points out, Nokia got bogged down in the alien detail of the task facing it — platform transition and building a sustainable software ecosystem — and therefore wasted time. Time that could have been spent on developing MeeGo from, in her words, a “good platform (N9 demonstrated that),” to a competitive ecosystem.

IHS screen digest analyst Ian Fogg describes Nokia’s fatal flaw as a failure of execution. “Historically Nokia repeatedly saw the future and adopted a strategy to seize the opportunity but failed to execute,” he says. “For example: they saw the importance of smartphones and secured a smartphone OS when they invested in Psion’s software division to create Symbian way back in 1998. But their Symbian smartphones were a pale shadow of what they had bought: they took a touch screen UI and converted it to a keyboard-only OS.”

As another example of forward thinking but flawed delivery, Fogg points to Nokia’s prescience around mobile gaming. “Nokia realised mobile games was a massive opportunity. Twice they tried to become the dominant mobile games player with Ngage and twice their execution let them down,” he notes. And when Nokia began pouring even more effort into mobile services – with the Ovi app store and initiatives such as Comes with Music – its plans were still “full of holes in execution.”

Windows Phone vs. Android

Fogg believes Nokia’s current set of problems with Windows Phones are not explained by a failure of execution; now it’s their strategy that’s the problem. While Elop “rightly saw” that mobile was becoming a “war of ecosystems,” choosing Windows Phone to fight the dominant players of Android and iOS has simply dragged Nokia down, he argues. “Now it’s Windows Phone that is holding Nokia back. Windows Phone is proving a hard sell because of the success of Android and iOS.”

Adopting Windows Phone also means Nokia is now reliant on Microsoft’s execution — and Redmond continues to lag behind the pace of development on the dominant smartphone platforms. “Microsoft has been slow to innovate with Windows Phone, which has held Nokia back,” says Fogg. “The current version, Windows Phone 8, is little different in consumer features to Windows Phone 7 of two years ago. In the meantime, Apple and Google have piled on numerous more features to iOS and Android.”elop

“Elop chose Windows Phone also because he could reduce costs by lowering the number of Nokia staff working on content and services. Ironically, Nokia is having to stimulate the Windows Phone ecosystem by content deals to attempt to get the platform moving,” Fogg adds.

Choosing Windows Phone was of course not the only option open to Nokia: There is one more lost opportunity to add to Nokia’s case file. With the benefit of hindsight, Leach believes it’s possible to say that Nokia should have adopted Android — and that by not doing so it missed the opportunity to be the company Samsung is now. Ironically that is also the company Nokia used to be: the dominant force in the mobile industry.

Also ironic: Google’s Android could have saved Nokia, instead of helping to bleed the company of its blue blood. Nokia was mobile royalty – now it’s just Microsoft’s foot soldier.

“Samsung has been the victor over Nokia more than Apple has,” Leach argues. “Success for Nokia now would be being Samsung – if, at that key point in 2008, 2009, they’d made that step to adopt Android. It wasn’t really clear at the time that was the right thing for them to do — at that time they really needed to be on their next-gen platform; that was clear. They needed to have MeeGo ready and in the market. But, if we put on our hindsight vision, we could say that rather than MeeGo, probably the best thing to have done would have been Android… With hindsight it’s a lot clearer.”

Fogg hammers this point home by arguing that differentiating its smartphones on Windows Phone has actually been harder for Nokia than it has been for its rivals to make a success of adopting Android. “Elop argued that Windows Phone would make it easier for Nokia to innovate and differentiate its phones than if Nokia had adopted Android. Ironically, Microsoft’s UI rules have made it hard for Nokia to do this while Sony, Samsung and HTC have successfully built custom user interfaces and applications on top of Android.”

Success for Nokia now would be being Samsung – if, at that key point in 2008, 2009, they’d made that step to adopt Android.

It’s hard to beat Nokia up for not predicting how successful Android was going to be; few would have predicted how swiftly Google would take over the smartphone space. But it’s easy to accuse Nokia of complacency at a time when there were plenty of warning signs the winds of technology change were whipping up a storm. Nokia even saw what was coming — what smartphones were becoming — sooner than most, but they failed to realise how quickly they needed to change, or that the time they had to prepare for their next business leap was shrinking exponentially.

And, finally, when they did realise they needed to turn their business upside down, choosing Windows Phone over Android was a flawed strategy that kicked the company into the long grass. No matter how well they executed, Windows Phone could not turn their business around because the race for smartphone dominance was being run by Android OEMs and Nokia wasn’t even in the running (leaving the field clear for Samsung to rise and rise).

What’s even worse for Nokia is that the story of its long-drawn-out decline is not a new tale. And the lesson it teaches is not original. Put simply it’s this: Innovate or die.