This started as a look at RIM and its recent difficulties, but I feel like this whole thing just reflects a whole series of bigger trends in mobile. One is that the adoption of mobile devices is happening a lot faster than the adoption of personal computers. Part of it may be due to price or mobility, but smart phones are getting into more hands everyday.The second trend is the speed that consumer technology is coalescing around a limited number of players. Right now if you are a developer you are going to go iOS first, Android second, and a mix of Blackberry/Windows Phone/other if you can afford to. Third the focus on who exactly is the customer has shifted from the carrier to the consumer. Now the third point goes along with the fourth and final observation; the movement away from talking about platforms to ecosystems. With the iPhone mobile carriers broke the tradition of letting themselves be a part of the customer chain and added regular users; this is turn lead to a shift around how we think about platforms. It’s no longer enough to just have a platform; a thing people build upon; but about what services and features an OS provides. Now this platform/ecosystem talk is subtle. The mobile phone market that RIM and Nokia ruled and Windows Mobile competed in was based around the platform; something akin to the PC market. They were also aimed at business users and geeks (like of a better term); highly technical users who wanted something they could tinker to their hearts content. The platform makers of the time were content to fight amongst themselves for space on show floors. And that is why most were caught off guard by the iPhone. For example Symbian was built in part to curb the spread of Windows Mobile; and Windows Mobile was built to basically mess with Palm. These platforms were not able to move fast enough to get a proper foothold in the new smart phone market. And this is where RIM finds itself.
For RIM, like most of the previous generation, the problem isn’t that can’t build a compelling platform. Its that they may not have the time to do it. Resets and ecosystem plays take time, and as I said earlier the mobile space is moving fast and centering on a few players. Right now that means Apple and Google. And the more troubling aspect for RIM is that businesses are moving to these platforms in spite of them not offering the security features Blackberry does. While RIM CEO Thorsten Hines argues that the company is in good shape and Blackberry 10 will change the industry, you have to ask will people wait. And its not just a problem for RIM, but for any company not named Apple.
When Stephen Elop made the deal to become a part of Windows Phone, it was an ecosystem play. The reason Nokia went with Microsoft as opposed to Google is simple; what Nokia wanted was an ecosystem to plug its services into they didn’t want to just be an a straight OEM. And they got that; but the plan wasn’t and isn’t going to happen overnight. The other reality is that with the deal Nokia’s had to make strategic choices with cuts in production and staff; to better match the new reality. Now some, like former Nokia employee Tomi Ahonen would fire Elop (he now calls the CEO a Microsoft sleeper agent) and continue with Symbian and MeeGo. In fact a number of former members of the N9 group (from Nokia) have created a company to use the OS (Jolla). Their argument is that Windows Phone has no real traction and what they are offering is a real challenger to Apple and Google. Again as with RIM you have the same problem. Now I liked the N9 and it had a lot of great ideas, but it was born out of the old platform strategy.
Now I should explain the difference between an ecosystem and a platform and really it semantics. But the key difference is intent. Platforms, especially early ones, were more about keeping someone else out than existing for its own reasons (I know how that sounds roll with me). Ecosystems are more about services and features around users; its clearly user focused.
Now with MeeGo, the Jolla team says it made the greatest OS; now that’s all well and good but they need to get behind everyone else waiting on developers. People tend to forget that MeeGo was a joint venture between Nokia and Intel to create a mobile platform. It was a combination of Nokia’s Maemo and Intel’s Moblin. It also seems people forgot how long it took to see MeeGo or the N9. MeeGo was about providing a platform for Nokia and Intel to get a bunch of Hardware makers to create a device and honestly that type of thinking doesn’t work. Just building a platform doesn’t work; not without an ecosystem story. You can create and plan a platform but it means nothing without intent or a device. And it doesn’t matter how innovative an OS looks or operates if the developers aren’t there and they don’t come now unless they see people going and picking up phones (don’t believe me ask Microsoft and Palm).
Creating ecosystems is hard; it’s not just about the software and tools or a slick UI. The tech graveyard is filled with companies who tried. Now for me I want Windows Phone and Metro as a UI language to succeed, but I also know that they are just as much in line to be buried alive as RIM. But I can’t help but feel that Jolla and RIM are sitting in la la land. This space is no longer a country for old men; the big players know they have no place they can hide and like a cornered animal they will fight; so go luck