Smartphone OS Wars, Nokia & CEOs

V-Day. Not that fateful day the Japanese decided to throw in the towel after seeing the horrors visited on Nagaskasi. No, not that one. Rather, valentine’s day. A day to spend with that special someone or in the case of quite a number of Finnish engineers for Nokia, a day to mull the impact of what that week’s seismic announcement of an alliance between their company and Microsoft means for them and their careers. To be honest, they’ll be gutted. Not only have they been told in not so subtle terms that their flagship OS, Symbian, is not good enough to take on the next generation of smartphone operating systems from major rivals but that they aren’t even trusted come up with a competing version. A double blow for the Finns; a champagne moment for those much maligned at windows mobile. For the latter,  seven is definitely the charm.

Before i delve into analyzing the deal, there’s a question which begs to be asked.  It often pops up in “water-cooler" conversations amongst techies. Do the suits upstairs know what they are doing? Simply, did Mr. Elop make the right call? It’s quite derogatory to describe non-technical staff members in that manner, i admit.  The recent move of Larry Page into a hands-on management position got me thinking about what makes one a success of an executive overseeing a product division or the entire firm itself. I limit myself to tech firms. Success here does not include maximizing profits by slashing the workforce and asking the remnants to equally share the workload to maintain quality. Nope, i apply a rosier(ideal?) definition: a situation where an executive presides over an increase in the revenue stream of existing products either by their improvement or the introduction of new products or services. Should that executive leave his/her post with neither a significant change for the better or worse, in my book that still qualifies as a quasi-success. How much change is significant? Finding an answer to that could be the subject of a thesis. Theoretically, every firm independent of size can be said to have  a “change-threshold” beyond which effects tend to be adversely manifested or send the firm on a upward trajectory. For the purposes of discussion, my definition will identify Microsoft’s erstwhile chief software architect, Ray Ozzie, tenure as a quasi-success. Eric Schmidt’s handling of Google from a startup to the 800 pound gorilla they are today is an example of a successful oversight. The litany of executive missteps and failures aren’t too hard to find. Managing people, making them interact and perform as envisaged is hard enough. Of that i am a realist.

So what’s the secret ingredient of success besides having the intellect required of the job? From my readings, it appears that those with a long history(read: worked with the bolts and nuts) in the sector they’re overseeing, a hint of narcissism,  possessing an unshakeable belief that they’re almost always right yet  can identify their own faults, adapt and step aside for a fresher smarter individual tend to experience success per my definitions. Does Elop tick the boxes? The Nokia board obviously thinks he does. However, using all of 5-6 months to arrive at a major decision of this magnitude raises an eyebrow. The other red flag-given his background- is settling on Windows Phone 7 as a viable solution to their woes despite having Meego in the wings. A damning indictment is the memo he sent to the staff. Was the last one utterly necessary? Not being privy to internal deliberations means that one can only make educated guesses.  Despite having a strong presence in every market, Nokia never really made inroads in the North American market. Could that have been due to a marketing issue? As of this writing, i am yet to see a Nokia phone advertised on TV for any major US telecom network. We’ll know if after shipping new handsets, the problem still persists. After all, Samsung and other Asian manufacturers seem to be doing well.

Depending on one’s view and interest with regards to Nokia, the range of responses to the deal centered mainly around profound optimism and pessimism. Vic Gundotra remarks and Elop’s response to them just frames the issue nicely. The deal obviously means that Nokia”s performance in the future will be beholden to the success of the Microsoft’s mobile OSes. This will ultimately reduce Nokia to being a handset manufacturer. RIM’s acquisition of QNX software which coincidentally does many of the things Meego hopes to do means that Elop will frequently be on the special hotline to his Redmond golf buddies to make sure they deliver. With Google slowly tightening their hold over Android and God-knows what Apple is brewing for the coming months, Nokia’s board will be hoping that the new fellow hired made the right call. The alternative? Elop unintentionally tried to put out the burning platform with…napalm.