Switched On: Clash of the troubled titans

Each week Ross Rubin contributes Switched On, a column about consumer technology.


Fans of the Lincoln-Kennedy coincidences can appreciate similarly contrived dynamics in comparing Nokia and RIM (neither of which, contrary to the occasionally expressed opinion, has been murdered despite "Apple and Android" consisting of three words and 15 letters). Both companies are former smartphone market share leaders -- RIM in North America, Nokia globally. Both have had success in developing economies with efficient operating systems that they plan to support indefinitely. Both developed reputations for high build quality and good antenna design, and both were initially dismissive of the iPhone as they continue to see Android as the path to commoditization. And after precipitous market share declines, both hired new CEOs. Nokia, a European company, hired a CEO raised in Canada. RIM, a Canadian company, hired a CEO raised in Europe. These men now struggle with keeping their companies part of a viable alternative to the two dominant marketplace offerings.

Since embarking on their new operating system strategies, though, there have been many contrasts. While Nokia hired an outsider as a CEO, RIM hired an insider. Nokia decided to adopt a licensed OS; RIM decided to build its own (based largely on acquisitions). And now that both the Mobile World Congress and BlackBerry World conferences have passed, there's an opportunity to assess their comeback progress.

Speed (Advantage: Nokia)

In justifying its decision to sideline MeeGo to lab rat status, Stephen Elop noted that the company was on track to deliver only three MeeGo-powered handsets by 2014 despite having already shipped the lame duck N9. Since switching teams, though, it has begun to roll out Windows Phone globally in four different chassis and has made the biggest U.S carrier push in at least the last five years. RIM, on the other hand, has offered only a peek of BackBerry 10 on prototype hardware. Even if the company were to ship it tomorrow, much less stick to its "later this year" time frame, RIM would be the last major smartphone vendor to respond to the 2007 debut of the iPhone with an operating system transplant.

Ecosystem (Advantage: Nokia)

In 2010, as the iPhone was beginning to surge past the BlackBerry, Steve Jobs offered prescient criticism to his competitor on an Apple earnings call, saying that RIM had to "look beyond their area of strength and comfort, into the unfamiliar territory of trying to become a software platform company." In contrast, while Windows Phone may be playing catch-up to Brand A and Brand Other A, Microsoft knows a thing or two about developer programs and ecosystems. While the company has eased up on its message of integrating with other Microsoft products and services (an uneven proposition depending on the franchise), its Xbox Live support is a nice perk for avid gamers on Microsoft's home consoles and its mobile OS should get a recognition boost from the overlay of the Metro mural across Windows 8 PCs set to begin later this year. While Nokia still has higher market share than its Waterloo-based rival globally, RIM still has higher share than Nokia in the U.S.

While BlackBerry World saw a commitment from Gameloft to support BlackBerry 10, there weren't many other announcements of support from popular consumer app providers. Rather, RIM highlighted support from cross-platform development environments aimed at bringing what in some cases is shlockware over from other platforms.

Differentiation (Incomplete)

At the debut of Windows Phone, Microsoft emphasized that the Windows Mobile successor was different than the incumbents, but the quadrangles filling its home screen winked on the faces of devices that bore little distinction when compared to Android devices from the same companies. Early Nokia flagships such as the N800 and, to a lesser extent, the N900, have changed that equation somewhat. Ecosystem-loyal Nokia has done little to tweak the interface of Windows Phone despite its license to do so. It has decided instead to differentiate with apps and services, such as the well-implemented Nokia Drive. But while Nokia Drive may give its developer an advantage over other Windows Phones, its advantage is mitigated versus Android, where nearly all handsets ship with the serviceable Google Navigation.

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In contrast, RIM focused little on differentiation per se in providing its first public glimpse of BlackBerry 10, with only a passing reference to the speed bumps of the iPhone's Home button and Android's Back button. Rather, it spoke of productivity, mobility and flow. The apparent seamlessness, fluidity, and HTML-friendliness of BlackBerry 10 have led some to compare it to early demonstrations of the now exiled webOS; there are some valid and disconcerting parallels. However, RIM is in far better financial health than Palm was at the launch of webOS and, based on what we've seen so far from QNX on the PlayBook, there's cause for optimism that RIM's new OS will offer far better responsiveness than webOS ever did. Perhaps reflecting the strong foundation of its underlying plumbing, RIM has made a better case for true multitasking than we've seen from competitors.

In the marathon that is the smartphone wars, Nokia may not have won the most recent lap, but at least it has run it. Choosing Windows Phone has allowed the handset company to manifest its comeback approach faster than RIM while letting Microsoft pick up the brunt of attracting developers. But RIM claims no regrets, noting that it is more convinced than ever that it took the right path in going it alone. When compared to today's menu-driven BlackBerry experience, BlackBerry 10 may be an ocean away. But RIM is designing that ocean so that BlackBerry users in particular will want to dive in.

Ross Rubin (@rossrubin) is executive director and principal analyst of the NPD Connected Intelligence service at The NPD Group. Views expressed in Switched On are his own.