Could Linux still usurp Windows Phone as Nokia's saviour?

Once-dominant Nokia faces an uphill slog to win back ground from the iPhone and Android, yet hope for a change of fortune may lie in an unexpected quarter.

CEO Stephen Elop has hinted that Nokia still has hopes of reviving a more independent identity. Photo: Nokia

Over the past few years Apple and Google have redrawn the map for smartphones, while Nokia, once the market leader in every aspect of mobile phone technology, has fallen behind. Earlier this month Nokia issued a first-quarter profits warning, despite selling two million Lumia smartphones.

The reasons for Nokia's decline in recent years are well known. The company invested heavily in operating system research, and spent far more on software R&D than any of its competitors, but appeared to lack the focus and direction to make its investments pay. Nokia suffered not from a lack of imagination or innovation, but a failure to tie the ends together and bring product to market.

The fall from grace was accentuated by the leaking, in early 2011, of the "burning platform" memo written by Nokia CEO Stephen Elop, which prepared the way for the adoption of Windows Phone and the redundancies that were to follow.

When the iPhone appeared, Nokia owned 49 per cent of the market, but as Elop himself said: "Apple disrupted the market by redefining the smartphone and attracting developers to a closed, but very powerful ecosystem". Through complacency or bad management, Nokia failed to bridge the gap as its market share collapsed.

Nokia may recover but hope may lie not so much with Windows Phone, which has a mountain to climb to compete with the iPhone or Android at the high end of the market, but with a high-performance Linux-based replacement for its low-end S40 operating system.

Nokia's might-have-beens

Nokia foresaw the potential of Linux as a mobile platform as far back as 2005 when it initiated the Maemo project based on Debian GNU/Linux. Maemo first appeared on the N770 internet tablet in November 2005. The N770 was a success but was targeted at a limited audience of geeks and developers.

The fate of Maemo was symptomatic of Nokia's failures. Maemo was never picked up or streamlined for use in commercial products, and suffered from a lack of continuity.

The Lumia 900 will soon get a wider release but sales of Lumia devices have failed to turn Nokia's fortunes. Photo: Nokia

Maemo was a might-have-been for Nokia - its promise never realised. The later partnership with Intel on the Linux-based MeeGo operating system suffered similar problems, suggesting a lack of urgency and purpose in the transition from research to production.

Nokia was not short of investment or ideas, but lacked the focus to make the most of them. As one commentator noted: "Nokia invested almost €6.2bn [$8.2bn] in Symbian in 2010 - more than 10 times the total R&D budget at Apple."

Nokia tried open-sourcing the Symbian code and imposing the Qt cross-platform application framework on the front end, but Symbian was never going to be a friendly home for the third-party app developers who had broadened the ecosphere for the iPhone and Android. "Developing for Symbian," according to one Nokia developer, "could make you want to slice your wrists."

In an interview in Bloomberg Businessweek, Elop recounted how he had been shown, a hi-fi speaker that enclosed a phone, giving a richer sound. Another engineer showed him a phone that could still function while submerged in water thanks to a nanoscale coating that made electronic parts water-resistant. "This kind of stuff has been sitting around people's desks, because it's too hard to get anything done around here," Elop said.

The same might have been true of Maemo and MeeGo. Either could have been a competitor to Android or the iPhone, given a sense of urgency and direction. But there seemed to be a separation between the idea and the reality, between the concept and the practicality of bringing a product to market - in sharp contrast to the targeted development of iOS and Android, which, of course, is also Linux-based.

Surprisingly, at the end of 2011, Nokia finally brought a MeeGo product to market, which may be MeeGo's farewell, or the beginnings of something else. The N9 smartphone is a successor to the N900, and the version of MeeGo used in the N9 is closer to Harmattan, or Maemo 6, than it is to MeeGo, although it is marketed under the MeeGo name, uses Qt, and is compatible with MeeGo 1.2.

The most significant thing about the N9 is that it uses the much-praised and decidedly innovative Swipe UI, and despite a modest launch and zero availability in many markets, is said to have achieved similar sales to Nokia's Lumia Windows 7 releases in the countries where it is available.

Nokia's Symbian scorched earth

Late in 2011, Nokia took a scorched earth policy to Symbian, selling its interest and transferring 3,000 Symbian employees to Accenture. Work on Maemo and MeeGo has been discontinued, and Intel rechannelled its MeeGo effort into Tizen, which is now developed under the auspices of The Linux Foundation.

Windows Phone may or may not drag Nokia out of its trough. Microsoft has an indifferent record with mobile technologies, and Nokia has become the outsider striving to break into a market it once controlled, without the image or the ecosystem that gives the iOS and Android their momentum and edge.

But Nokia still has hopes of reviving a more independent identity. Elop hinted at this when he referred to a "fully-sanctioned skunkworks, with teams in Helsinki and Silicon Valley, staffed by top technical talent from the discontinued Symbian and MeeGo efforts, especially MeeGo".

He also told a group of engineers in Berlin last year that the goal is once again to "find that next big thing that blows away Apple, Android, and everything we're doing with Microsoft right now, and makes it irrelevant - all of it. So go for it, without having to worry about saving Nokia's rear end in the next 12 months. I've taken off the handcuffs."

Meltemi: Where the wind blows

The product in development is known as Meltemi, a Linux-based OS, which was referenced in a memo leaked to the The Wall Street Journal last year. Its existence has been neither confirmed nor denied by Nokia, and Meltemi is still more rumour than substance. However, it was given a name check by Elop in a presentation from last year that has found its way onto YouTube.

Meltemi is the Greek name for a summer wind that blows across the Aegean Sea, and significantly follows the Maemo tradition of naming releases after trade winds. Speculation suggests that the development of Meltemi is variously based in Finland, the US, or Ulm, Germany, and utilises the best talents from Maemo-MeeGo, Symbian and Smarterphone OS, the low-cost smartphone platform Nokia acquired last year.

If the rumours are true and Meltemi comes to fruition, it will utilise Qt and the Swipe UI and replace Nokia's low-end S40 operating system, revolutionising the market in rich-feature phones.

The aim is to bring higher specification smartphone technologies to the next billion mobile phone users at a much cheaper price, and thus to revive Nokia's fortunes at the low end of the smartphone market.


Richard Hillesley is a writer focusing on Linux, free software and digital rights. He was a software engineer for 17 years and is a former editor of LinuxUser magazine.

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