Last week, Nokia came rolling into New York City to launch their two new Windows Phones, the Lumias 920 and 820. Part of the marketing plan was an informal evening event in a West-side gallery where Nokia fans could eat, drink, see the two new Lumias up close and in action, and (far more importantly if you ask me) meet some great people who share a common interest in mobiles, and in particular, Nokia folk from far and wide.
Of course, such a high-profile Nokia launch was bound to attract the smartphone Illuminati, and one such knowledgeable chap who couldn’t resist the pull of new yellow and red Nokias on show was the well-known and highly respected Rafe Blandford, the man behind the popular AllAboutSymbian and AllAboutWindowsPhone sites. Rafe has been writing about Nokia’s devices and the company’s ups and downs for over a decade, and his passion and professionalism show in the extraordinary detail and polished content of his websites. Rafe is also a member of the excellent 361 Degrees podcast with Ben Smith and Ewan MacLeod, as well as being the backbone of both the AllAbout sites’ own podcasts.
I had a bit of a lucky week, because not only did I actually win something for the first time in my life (a superbly loud Nokia MD-11 mini speaker at the NYC event) but Rafe had kindly agreed to meet up with me and answer a few questions relating to the Nokia N9. So over some bruschetta and calamari in a quiet Upper West Side restaurant, we got down to the business of discussing everything Nokia, including the N9.
Me: When the N9 was announced in June last year, can you remember what your first reactions were?
Rafe: Well I wasn’t in Singapore for the event, but I was in London with a video link to the event with Marko Ahtisaari and there were about five or six of us in a room. We watched him pull this device out of his pocket and he was saying how proud he was of it. I took one look at it and basically went, “Wow! What a fabulous design!” Obviously it’s since been reused, but I remember thinking that I honestly didn’t think Nokia was capable of producing something this different. I had been expecting something in the line of the N8, which is a design I was very fond of, that kind of metal-heavy design. But it was the minimalism of the design; that simplification really impressed me. When I got a chance to use one of the actual devices, I turned it on to use the software and I loved the way that the Swipe gestures naturally, organically came from the shape of the device, with the 2.5D glass, the curved corners, and actually I think that’s something that’s been lost in the transition to Windows Phone. In many ways the N9 is the high point of that Fabula design language. So yeah, it was a pretty special moment. I’ve been to a number of Nokia launches over the years, and that one is one that stands out in the memory as quite a ‘wow’ moment, along with something like the N95, and that one was really driven by specs rather than design.
Me: I think Marko did a good job with his presentation. Would you agree?
Rafe: Yes, he did, Marko is a very talented presenter, and it was a very designer-type presentation, making the whole thing make you go, “Oh that makes perfect sense, that’s completely logical.” I’ve interviewed him a couple of times and you get that same intensity, that same passion. Maybe too passionate sometimes! He’s got very strong viewpoints and I think that’s reflected in the changes in Nokia’s designs in recent years. He’s certainly made a mark on the Nokia design team.
Me: Where is the N9’s place in the current market?
Rafe: (laughs) I thought I’d be asked this question! I’ve heard the N9 being referred to as ‘The Unicorn’, especially in the white version, and that’s kind of how I feel about the device now, basically a device that should never really have existed, it’s almost like it’s forbidden fruit, in that, if people know what they’re buying, it’s really something quite special. But I couldn’t ever recommend anyone buy it, simply because it’s at the end of the road. There are the stability issues of it too, there are a few bugs in it that you do come across in day-to-day usage, and that’s because it’s kind of been abandoned. Yes there have been a few updates and some of the worst bugs have been fixed. It’s a fairly peculiar device that, if you want to stand out and be different, it’s the best device to buy, but also if you’re interested in hacking your phone from a Linux point of view, or a developer point of view, it’s unmatched. It gives you that kind of ability to get quite low down into the software and do interesting things with it. I actually expect it to be around for a few years, as you can port Linux code across to it fairly easily. So yeah, calling it a unicorn device is probably the easiest summary!
Me: Fair enough! So let’s talk for a moment about Jolla. Much of the talent that brought us the N9 has moved on to Jolla – what are your thoughts on Jolla Mobile?
Rafe: I think what they’re doing is very interesting. I’m just a bit skeptical about how effectively it can be done. Producing a mobile phone that you plan to sell, say 250,000 units of – it’s not unprecedented. As a project, it’s doable. But transitioning that into tens of millions of devices, which are the numbers they’ll need to be successful in the longer term, I’m more skeptical. It feels like an extended R&D project, and they’ve got some really talented people working for them, they have picked out some of the real cream of the people who were working on the N9 and some of Nokia’s other Linux projects. And they have people from the wider community too, so I imagine they’ll be lots of the Qt people as well. But, my heart says: fantastic idea, I like the idea of a very open phone that’s based on Linux, and some of the things they’re talking about, very smart things like the ability to run Android apps in that ecosystem is great, but getting that to actually work for the average consumer will be more difficult. It’ll keep the developer and the tech community happy, but my head says it will be harder to make a sustainable business out of it.
Me: A question I’m sure a lot of people would ask you if they had a chance to sit with “The Blandford” is, taking into account everything you know about Nokia before the announcement in February last year, what would you have done as CEO of Nokia?
Rafe: Well the first thing I’ll say is that I wouldn’t take that job because it’s too much of a hard decision!
Me: Have a go!
Rafe: Well, I’ll cheat a bit and give you two answers. In my heart I would’ve given Symbian and MeeGo a bit more of an opportunity. Stephen Elop talked about ‘future disruptions’ and I think doing a couple more MeeGo models would’ve been an interesting way to do that. Particularly with Nokia’s other Linux project, Meltemi being canned. I understand the reasons to do that as it would’ve been really hard with Series 40 coming up from behind and maybe they were expecting Windows Phone going down to a lower price point fairly quickly. It would’ve been OK for a year, but a couple of years down the road I would expect it to be squeezed. But with MeeGo-Harmattan there was room to do something a bit different, and they probably could’ve done it with a relatively small team, and while it would’ve cost a lot of money, do you really want to get rid of that competence from the company? I think there would’ve been real value in retaining that. So it depends at which point you’re making this decision. There was inevitability about moving away from Symbian. Would that have meant going to MeeGo? I think when it comes down to it, I would have to say that going with another platform – be it Windows Phone or another platform – was inevitable because Nokia really hadn’t done well in software engineering in the previous five years. They had tried to do various platforms, but we saw how late MeeGo came out, and the same applied to Symbian, so it’s difficult to see how they would have survived in the competitive environment with Android and iOS. But that, in one sense, is almost irrelevant to me. The question became not about the individual platform, but about the wider context. And it’s the partnership with Microsoft that makes the most logical alliance for Nokia to make, bearing in mind where the market’s going, mobile is no longer about a singular device but it’ll be about a collection of devices in the home. And the obvious things are tablets and computers but also the set-top box or Xbox, and we’re also seeing it in the Nike SmartWatch and the FitBit. All of it means that eventually you have to be part of a larger ecosystem that extends beyond mobile and I just don’t think Nokia was able to do it on their own. And with Microsoft, there’s not much overlap, but they give Nokia a big stake in it. Y’know they could’ve joined Android, but they would’ve become just another Android manufacturer, and I think Google’s got some real strategic problems with how it addresses this multi-device world with mobile computing all around the home, so that’s why I think it was important. And I think they made the right decision, but I think a big part of me wishes there could’ve been a continuation of Symbian and Harmattan. But then again, if I was going to be really ruthless, I wouldn’t have released the N9 at all.
Rafe: Well I actually think it caused more problems. Of course it would’ve annoyed a lot of people if they’d cancelled it, but all of those people are leaving Nokia anyway. And like I say, it produced this ‘forbidden fruit’ that I mentioned in the last answer. Despite the fact that I love the device, if I’m just being totally hard-headed about it, I would’ve just cancelled it. In much the same way I think it would’ve been easy to extend the life of Symbian, and people talk about Elop kind of chopping it on the head, and that’s why the sales numbers went down so dramatically – I’m on the record many times saying that I don’t actually think that’s a major contributing factor. Of course it’s had some impact, but the pattern was quite clear before that, and I think people on the outside don’t realize just how schizophrenic Nokia was, how complex the management pattern was, with multiple layers, it was very bureaucratic, and so he needed to send a message as much internally as externally to say, ‘this is a big shift we’re making.’ And that’s why there was that fairly dramatic ‘burning platform’ memo, and that’s why Symbian was shoveled off quicker than it might have been. I’m sure they could’ve made more money from extending Symbian a bit, but that would’ve had an impact on how quickly he would’ve been able to transition to Windows Phone. So that’s my second, logical answer: don’t release the N9 at all. I can’t believe I’m saying that! I’m sure I’m going to get castrated in the comments section! I’m trying to give an interesting answer!
Me: Do you think you would’ve used a different choice of words in your memo as CEO?
Rafe: Absolutely! I would’ve done that, I would’ve made sure that the memo didn’t leak as well! Y’know, I think a lot of people were really annoyed by that, and the language was a little bit intemperate. In fact that ‘burning platform’ quote is straight out of a McKinsey consultancy book, and it’s pretty clear that McKinsey wrote that memo. And even though I don’t think the memo deliberately leaked, they knew that sort of message was going to get out eventually, but I thought the language was a bit unoriginal.
Me: Well thanks, Rafe, that’s just about it. You’re off the hook!
Rafe: Phew! Well, I hope I’ve given some interesting answers.
Me: Yes, you certainly have, thanks a lot, I really appreciate you giving up some of your time in New York.
So there you have it, Rafe’s take on it all. He obviously loves the N9, but from a business stand-point can see how it became a thorn in the side of some of the senior management at Nokia.
I’d like to thank Rafe again for being willing to give up most of his Friday afternoon to sit and chat with me about the N9 and the smartphone world in general. I can honestly say it was a totally enjoyable afternoon and it was great being able to discuss very specific (albeit super-nerdy!) topics; I could’ve chatted with Rafe for hours more! He is such a nice bloke, and if you ever have the chance to meet him and have a chat, I highly recommend it.
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