opinion


Nokia catches a Norwegian Troll

Finnish handset giant Nokia sent ripples through the market in late January, with the announcement of plans to acquire Scandinavian mobile Linux developer Trolltech for $153m.

However, the world’s leading handset vendor was quick to quash rumours that the move would see Symbian platforms running on Linux, or even an overhaul of the company’s favoured operating system.

Speaking at the press conference in Oslo, Norway, where Trolltech is based, Kai Oistamo, Nokia’s executive vice president of devices, said that the focus of the deal was, “Not to develop a Linux-based mobile device,” but rather to allow the Finnish firm to further develop its online services strategy.

At the heart of the acquisition is Trolltech’s Qt cross platform application framework, which would better allow Nokia and third party developers to build web applications that work across Nokia’s device portfolio and on PCs. From what the market has already seen of Nokia’s internet services play, it is clear that the strategy is based on cross-platform development environments – layers of software that run across operating systems – such as Web runtime, Flash, Java and Open C. Ultimately, this latest move allows it to better compete against web-services backed platforms such as Google’s Android, Apple’s OS X and to a degree, Microsoft’s Windows Mobile.

Since the announcement of its Ovi strategy late in the summer of 2007, Nokia has been busy rebuilding the user interface on its devices to allow closer integration with web-based services. The announcement itself was a bit of a bombshell. At the time, Olli Pekka Kallasvuo, Nokia’s chief executive, introduced the service, which translates into ‘door’ in Finnish, with the controversial statement: “Devices alone are not enough anymore.”

Ovi as a platform incorporates all the vendor’s various forays into the applications space – mobile music via the company’s Music Store, games via the N-gage platform, social networking through Mosh, Twango and potentially, Facebook, and positioning and location based service through the recent Navteq acquisition.

It’s a proposal the operators are welcoming, owing to a marked move away from a carrier controlled walled garden into the explicit support of open mobile internet experiences delivered by a multitude of web partners like Myspace, Google, eBay and YouTube.

As Disruptive Analysis’ Dean Bubley points out, “This is an Ovi play, and a pitch to offer useful third-party hosted services to mobile operators whose own internal services innovation has been weak.” Bubley says that Nokia wants to take an aggregation role between software developers, who have cool ideas but no easy way to deal with masses of operators, and the network owners themselves. Exactly the kind of direction taken by Microsoft and Google.

“Trolltech and Nokia share the goal of accelerating the adoption of Trolltech’s Qt based technology in the commercial market and in the open source community,” said Haavard Nord, CEO and founder of Trolltech at the press event in Oslo.

But the acquisition does put Nokia in something of a predicament, given the other half of Trolltech’s business model is developing a mobile Linux operating system.

Last year, in an interview with telecoms.com, Benoit Schillings, CTO of Trolltech, said that Linux was set to outstrip Symbian as the mobile operating system of choice within the next five years.

“Mobile operating systems are definitely the next battleground for the mobile communications industry, with major players such as Microsoft Windows, Symbian and Linux fighting for dominance,” said Schillings. “Handset manufacturers need to get different types of products to market quickly in order to keep up with the pace of innovation. Closed, vendor-specific proprietary operating systems do not offer the high levels of flexibility needed for this rapid mobile device and service innovation.”

But in a sense, that’s exactly what the acquisition is about. Nokia’s Oistamo said that the integration of Trolltech’s Qt framework would allow the Finnish firm to deploy applications for multiple platforms from a single source code base, reducing time to market and increasing the competitiveness of S60 and Series 40.

Moreover, it’s not like Nokia doesn’t already have a Linux strategy of its own. Last year the vendor joined both the Linux Foundation and the Gnome Mobile & Embedded Initiative (GMAE). Nokia dabbles in the Linux environment through its open sourced Linux-based Maemo platform, which is already commercialised in the N810 internet tablet device, although Oistamo confirmed that the company’s mobile web devices will continue to be based on Gnome, rather than Trolltech’s own Qtopia platform.

Nokia did however, say that it would continue the development of Trolltech’s products and support of new and existing customers, which ironically includes Microsoft Windows Mobile developers and Motorola’s own flavour of UIQ.

The question now is whether Nokia will overhaul its lower-tier Series 40 platform, to better cope with all these Web 2.0 services it plans to throw at it. Although S60 is a fully multitasking version of the Symbian OS, one of the biggest complaints about S40 devices is that they do not support true multi-tasking – an issue Nokia may need to address if it intends to make its online services available to the mobile masses.

When asked this, Nokia’s director of communications, Mark Durrant, said that although, “Series 40 offers a feature rich high volume, mass market platform. Individual enhancements to either platform are not the subject of today’s announcement and we have nothing further to add at this time.”

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  • Nokia Corporation


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