What Nokia did to Symbian and Meego app developers this month was the online equivalent to breaking up with someone via a Post-It note.
In fact, the closure of the Nokia Store for Symbian on Jan. 2 was accompanied by a Tweet that would have comfortably fit on a small piece of paper: "That was it; we are officially closed. Thank you all for the past years!" For developers who remained loyal to Symbian, Meego and its long-established community of users, however, it would be hard to see the abrupt shutdown of the app store as a thank-you.
Having only a three-month window to figure out contingency plans, their apps are now officially in limbo. It's not only that developers can no longer publish new Symbian or Meego apps to the store; they also can't make any changes to existing ones. That means compatibility issues and other bugs could remain largely unresolved, annoying consumers and leaving developers holding the bag. Is this really the best way for Nokia to encourage developers to make the move towards the platform of its new owner, Microsoft's Windows Phone 8?
What's particularly scary about this whole situation is how big Nokia's influence on the app market used to be. I remember traveling to London about 10 years ago for the big Symbian conference. At the time this was considered the great, bright hope for the smartphone industry, in which Apple and Google were nowhere to be seen. It would have been unimaginable at that time that Symbian and Meego developers would be stranded like this, even as it's probably unthinkable that something similar could ever happen to iOS or Android developers. Well, it can happen and it has.
There are only a few logical next steps for the Symbian and Meego developer community. One is to completely rewrite apps and republish them under a new OS elsewhere. That's probably the long-term outlook for many. Another is to go it alone: host Symbian apps on their own server or through some sort of mobile backend-as-a-service (MBaaS) provider (a few of whom I mention in this week's feature story).
Although the latter option might seem a little nuts, it would be an interesting experiment in app loyalty and engagement. If a Symbian or Meego developer created enough of a connection with an audience, might they be willing to receive updates or notifications directly from that developer, rather than through an app store? This is the kind of middleman-elimination similar to what's been proposed by HTML5 adherents who see developers going directly to browsers with apps.
That's the real takeaway from the Nokia app store shutdown. Developers can do whatever they like to boost downloads, increase retention and make money from apps, but with the business model that's in place today, their customer relationships come only at the mercy of the platform providers. And at least in this case, there wasn't a lot of mercy to be had. --Shane