What the Nokia/Microsoft alliance means for developers

Jason Ankeny

BARCELONA, Spain--Say this much for Nokia (NYSE:NOK) CEO Stephen Elop: When he decides to shake up the status quo, he doesn't mess around. Elop's decision to embrace Microsoft's (NASDAQ:MSFT) Windows Phone 7 operating system as Nokia's primary smartphone platform is the kind of radical, make-or-break move you have to admire for its sheer intestinal fortitude, even if you vehemently disagree with the outcome. Per terms of the deal announced last week, Nokia and Microsoft will forge a worldwide mobile ecosystem integrating their respective assets--for example, Microsoft's Bing engine will power search across Nokia devices and services, and Microsoft initiatives like Bing and AdCenter will incorporate the Nokia Maps solution. The companies say Microsoft software tools will enable developers to build apps that run across Nokia devices, leveraging the handset maker's global scale; Nokia also boasts extensive global operator billing partnerships, enabling developers to reach consumers in regions where credit card usage is negligible.

All of which means that Symbian and MeeGo are now afterthoughts in the Nokia universe, even if the company argues otherwise. Symbian gets pushed to franchise platform status, with Nokia stating it will continue leveraging previous investments while striving to retain and transition its installed base of 200 million Symbian device owners worldwide. The handset maker expects to sell roughly 150 million additional Symbian units in the years ahead. As for MeeGo--the platform unveiled here at Mobile World Congress just a year ago, combining Nokia's former Maemo and Intel's former Moblin efforts and slated to power all of Nokia's future high-end devices--it now becomes an open-source project, with an emphasis on longer-term market exploration of new devices, platforms and user experiences. Nokia maintains it still will ship a MeeGo-related product later this year.

Why Windows Phone 7 and not Google's (NASDAQ:GOOG) Android? Elop shed new light on the question during a press event here Sunday, hours before Mobile World Congress 2011 officially kicked off. He said a Nokia/Google partnership would have transformed the mobile industry into a duopoly pitting Android against Apple's (NASDAQ:AAPL) rival iOS: "If we had made the decision to swing in the direction of Android, it would have delivered substantial market share, and would have tilted the mobile ecosystem in that direction," Elop said. "By partnering with Windows Phone 7, we've established a very different dynamic, and created an environment where Windows Phone 7 is a challenger. We've created a three-horse race."

It's not a three-horse race at least until Nokia's first WP7 devices leave the starting gate, however--and while those smartphones should arrive later in 2011, no firm date has been announced. If nothing else, the wait gives developers ample time to sort out what the Nokia/Microsoft deal means for them. Here's what we know right now: Microsoft will make available its existing free Windows Phone Developer Tools, Visual Studio 2010, Expression, Silverlight and the XNA Framework to developers, according to a blog post written by Forum Nokia head Purnima Kochikar, who adds that Microsoft and Nokia will together provide guidance for developers wishing to port their applications to Windows Phone. As for Qt, the cross-platform development environment adopted by Nokia as its sole application creation framework only last October: "Qt will continue to be the development framework for Symbian and Nokia will use Symbian for further devices; continuing to develop strategic applications in Qt for Symbian platform and encouraging application developers to do the same," Kochikar notes. "Though our plans for MeeGo have been adapted in light of our planned partnership with Microsoft, that device will be compatible with applications developed within the Qt framework and so give Qt developers a further device to target."

Nokia also plans what it calls its "web for the next billion" strategy, which promises to deliver consumers in emerging markets affordable access to the web and applications. "This represents a further opportunity for developers," Kochikar states. "Nokia will leverage our proxy browser technology on mobile phones, as well as continuing to enhance Java support and SDKs, with developers and publishers able to deliver their applications to consumers through the Nokia store." In addition, Forum Nokia will continue to support developers for Symbian smartphones and Series 40 mobile phones.

Symbian developers aren't the only segment of the population impacted by the deal, of course. In a blog entry of his own, Microsoft general manager Matt Bencke touts new opportunities for Windows Phone developers to reach a larger and more localized consumer market alongside back-end services and core infrastructure improvements. "For example, Nokia already has strong relationships with operators in more than 190 markets. Nokia also manages an application marketplace that delivers 4 million downloads per day; a channel that will complement the existing Windows Phone Marketplace experience to bring Windows Phone developers and Nokia customers together," Bencke explains. "We will have more details to share about the marketplace strategy in the future, but our intent is to build upon the best of what both companies offer today." Bencke adds that Microsoft and Nokia still have much to resolve in regards to device types and delivery schedules: "I won't promise that there will be no work required to ensure that apps and games look great on these new phones," he notes.

Windows Phone 7 developers appear excited by the Microsoft/Nokia deal--mobile application analytics provider Flurry reports that as rumors and then the official announcement of the partnership came to light, WP7 project starts experienced a 66 percent week-over-week increase. Symbian developers facing a shrinking platform on life support find themselves at a crossroads, however. And just because Nokia made the decision to embrace Windows Phone 7 over Android doesn't mean Symbian developers are going to make the same choice. -Jason