Plus ça change…et plus.

We are at this year’s Mobile World Congress, held last week in Barcelona. One of the usual suspects, AT&T CEO Randall Stephenson, stands and delivers the new and improved party line: App Stores are bad. Stephenson wants cross-platform apps delivered through the Wholesale Applications Community (WAC), whose “commercial launch’’ takes place at the conference.

At last year’s conference, carriers made similar noises, dutifully reported in this 2010 Mobile World Clusterf#^k Monday Note, and no less diligently mocked in TechCrunch

(“The Wholesale Applications Community Sounds Like a Disaster in the Making.”) Now that AT&T is no longer the exclusive iPhone carrier in the US, the App Store that used to boost their iPhone sales (with a fat $100/month ARPU) also benefits Verizon.

AT&T’s carrier-centric view of the world remains unchanged: Phones are a commodity. Their sole raison d’être is to act as a transmission medium, a hard-to-disconnect hose attached to our wallets that sucks out as much money as possible…in legal ways, of course…most of the time.

To Mr. Stephenson, a financial executive (he used to be CFO of Southwestern Bell), Apple’s App Store and its ilk violate the carrier’s birthright. Unveiled last year and re-announced last week, the path to redemption is clear: WAC, a cross-carrier, cross-platform “community.” Who wouldn’t want the security of a carrier-hosted universal application library? Simple, no?

No.

Software is the music of smartphones. Picture two musical instruments, a pipe organ and a spinet piano. Consider the organ in the picture, three keyboards, a pedalboard, the “ranks” (sets of pipes) controlled by stops along the sides:

The organ’s sonic palette is broad and deep: A wide ambitus of pitch, from the gut-wrenching near-subsonic to the hair-raising upper reaches; a panoply of timbres; infinite sustain; capable of terrifying volume…

The spinet…

Music written for an organ transcribed — cross-platformed — for a spinet…it’s just not the same. Why aim for the lowest common denominator?

Metaphor aside, restricting the features and capabilities of an app so it fits on every smartphone doesn’t inspire hardware and software innovation.

Just as important — and I’m not sure I can put this diplomatically — in matters of application software and, more generally, taste, what’s the carriers’ record? Do they think customers care more about “one size fits all” sophistry than they do about quality? Subscribers have proven their willingness to pay a premium for products that demonstrate attention to form and function.

AT&T’s “get off my lawn” attitude reeks of nostalgia for the Good Old Days when carriers dictated features and prices. The inevitable disintermediation of their business started with the iPhone apostasy and will soon expand when an unlocked smartphone from Mediatek (see Stephen Elop’s memo) running an Android derivative (OMS/oPhone or Tapas) can be had for $79 or less.

The cross-carrier/cross-platform WAC will make as much progress this year as it did in the last 12 months. Next year’s PowerPoint slides won’t need much editing.

But that was just the appetizer.

The pièce de résistance at this year’s MWC was the MicroNokia CF:

Nokia has given up on its smartphone platforms and has adopted Windows Phone 7.

  • Symbian (Nokia’s current platform) will be “harvested,” which mean Symbian will be flogged until MicroNokia handsets ship in sufficient volume.
  • Meego (a Linux derivative and Nokia’s former future) has been put to pasture…but will ship as a face-saving “research project.”
  • Qt, Nokia’s cross-platform UI framework, has been abandoned. Microsoft will provide the UI.

This is supposed to reverse Nokia’s well-documented market share and profit decline.

Last year, Nokia fired its CEO, OPK (Olli-Pekka Kallasvuo) and hired a Microsoft executive, Stephen Elop. If you click on the link, you’ll see Nokia’s future CEO with a Nokia exec, Kai Öistämö, now reporting to him. Titillating as they might be, we’ll skip the conspiracy theories, they shed no light on the MicroNokia’s future.

It’s not going to be pretty.

Nokia faces an extremely difficult business model transition. One foot in the “we own everything” boat, the other in the Windows Phone 7 skiff. The integrated business model is sinking, and the new Microsoft smartphone platform isn’t floating very well. Consumers and carriers might desert Symbian devices faster than MicroNokia handsets gain acceptance. (Actually, “handsets” is the wrong word. As discussed in Elop’s Burning Platform memo, “ecosystem” is more appropriate: devices + applications + app store + services + content distribution + carriers.)

It gets worse. Today, Nokia sells huge volumes everywhere around the world (except in the US), more than 120M phones per quarter, of which 28M are Symbian devices. How will Nokia’s business fare against the surge of unlocked $79 “Android” derivatives?

We hear Nokia’s explanation for not choosing Android: Not enough differentiation, Windows Phone 7 will give us more control over our destiny, we have a “special partnership” with Microsoft. Special, differentiated…but how? What about other Windows Phone 7 licensees? How will Microsoft succeed in creating a thriving ecosystem if one partner is more equal than the others?

Then there’s the money behind the deal. “Billions,” we’re told, but without further details. Will it be cash, considerations in kind, support, licensing rebates, marketing budget? In time, we’ll get more data.

Such alliances have a way of not working with Microsoft, whose record on the matter is terrible. On his Asymco site, Horace Dediu lists Microsoft’s failed smartphone partnerships. At the risk of belaboring the obvious, the common factor in those failures is Microsoft, its culture, its ways.

(But wait, the MicroNokia alliance is different. Stephen Elop is a cultural diplomat, he’s familiar with the Microsoft ethos, he was the executive in charge of the Office documents partnership with Nokia…)

Microsoft is no longer the successful, dominant player that it was in the PC business. It’s trying to get back into a race that RIM, Google, and Apple are winning. As a result, Microsoft is willing to provide incentives to application developers and handset makers. Big incentives.

And big incentives are justifiable. Microsoft execs realize they no longer have the upper hand, that they must use “all means necessary” to get back into the smartphone revolution, the biggest high-tech rocket we’ve ever seen, combining three engines: Cloud, Social, and Very Personal Computers a.k.a. Smartphones.

To Microsoft’s credit, another tenet of its culture is “never give up.” Like the Harvard football coach he once was, Steve Ballmer tells his troops to keep trying and trying until they succeed, and he has the resources, the money, the people — and his board’s support — to keep at it. I take issue with his wanton disregard for annoying facts, but, good faith or not, I can’t help but admire the unwavering leader and the expert showman.

Still, I doubt this MicroNokia deal will be enough to put Microsoft back in the smartphone and tablets race.

With this in mind, why not acquire Nokia and its worldwide manufacturing and distribution?  For Microsoft, this wouldn’t be a first. They went “integrated” (or, if you prefer, “Apple”) with the Xbox business and controlled the platform in its entirety. The MicroNokia marriage would be a difficult one, certainly, but it would give Microsoft more control over its own destiny. Suitable explanations would be provided: It’s a new era, we have an opportunity to become the largest smartphone maker, and (while we’re being cheeky) it’s a way to thwart the looming Google/Android licensing monopoly.

Who knows, Ballmer might change his mind. If he doesn’t, he might put yet another failed partnership on his résumé.

JLG@mondaynote.com

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