Device operating systems

RIP Symbian & MeeGo: Nokia Ties Future to WP7

Nokia Corp. (NYSE: NOK) is placing all its bets on a new partnership with Microsoft Corp. (Nasdaq: MSFT), but what happens to the operating systems it leaves behind, namely MeeGo and Symbian Ltd. ? (See Nokia Unveils Major Revamp, Nokia Revamps, Nokia Sets Near-Term Targets and Nokia, Microsoft Team Up.)

The answer may be: Not much.

Details of the partnership were relatively vague and are probably still being worked out. According to the announced terms of the partnership ("Nokisoft" or "Microia," if you prefer), Nokia will adopt Windows Phone 7 as its principal smartphone strategy, and Symbian will become a franchise platform, "leveraging previous investments to harvest additional value." There are around 200 million Symbian devices out today, and Nokia expects to eke out another 150 million more.

Linux-based MeeGo, Nokia's primary OS for high-end devices and tablets, becomes an "open-source, mobile operating system project." It won't ship as part of another broad smartphone strategy, Nokia CEO Stephen Elop told investors Friday, calling MeeGo an "opportunity to learn."

"MeeGo will place increased emphasis on longer-term market exploration of next-generation devices, platforms and user experiences," the company said in a release. "Nokia still plans to ship a MeeGo-related product later this year."

Reading between the lines, it's clear Symbian and MeeGo are nearing the end of the road. Elop told investors that he was concerned that Nokia couldn't expand fast enough nor build a third OS ecosystem without a partner, and, indeed, both Symbian and MeeGo have failed to do this so far.

"You couldn't get any clearer that [MeeGo] has no strategic value at the moment," says Gartner Inc. industry analyst Michael Gartenberg. "It's an experiment; a science project."

Contributing to this notion is the fact that amidst expectations of a shakeup involving several executives, only Alberto Torres, MeeGo's chief, "stepped down" from the management team. (See Nokia to Cut Jobs, Stay in Finland, Nokia's History of Change and Top 5 Candidates for Nokia's Exec Shakeup.)

What about Android?
Nokia considered Android for its OS partner too, recognizing its momentum in the industry, but Elop said he feared it would be too difficult to differentiate in that ecosystem in which it would be just another manufacturer. He also said the platform was headed towards being a commodity.

"It felt a little bit like giving up and not enough like fighting back," Elop said.

Both Elop and Microsoft CEO Steve Ballmer were careful, however, to note that this is not an exclusive partnership and that both maintained the right to pursue other partners. It could be that Nokia is leaving the door open for working with Android in the future.

Tablets may be the device they find common ground on as neither Nokia nor Microsoft has a compelling OS for the hot new device category at this point.

Of course, MeeGo would be an obvious candidate for tablets as well. Michael Bramlage, director of product management for the Ovi Store, said back in November that MeeGo was designed for tablets, not smartphones, so this could be the strategy Nokia ultimately pursues. (See Symbian Shutters Its Sites.)

The partnership is a huge win for Microsoft as it expands its hardware base, but it's unclear what the future holds for Nokia. Adopting Microsoft Windows is also the strategy Palm Inc. pursued back in 2006, and it's taken until -- well, Wednesday -- to re-launch a new strategy when licensing Microsoft didn't prove effective. (See HP Veers Into the Future of WebOS and No Easy Out for Nokia.) But, as Gartenberg reminds us and Elop knows to be true, "when you're standing on the burning platform, there's only so many ways you can go."

— Sarah Reedy, Senior Reporter, Light Reading Mobile

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