Friday, September 10, 2010

Seems like Nokia just hired the wrong guy?

Apple is dominating the mobile platform world in terms of influence right now with iOS.  Google seems clamped onto the #2 spot with Android, but maybe they can hit #1.  Microsoft is charging fast to catch up with their Windows Phone 7 efforts.  And who knows if HP might ever want to get into the phone business after acquiring Palm (although they seem only focused on tablets)?  Finally, there's everyone's fading but still strong enterprise addiction, RIM and their Blackberry.  What's a company like Nokia, sinking fast despite being the former world leader in mobile platforms with Symbian, supposed to do?

How about fire their CEO and hire a new guy?  Don't cry for Olli-Pekka Kallasvuo, it seems he's getting quite the nice package (but maybe not as nice as Carly Fiorina's when she got fired from HP).  Clearly, the board lost faith in Kallasvuo.  Did he really pay $8.1 billion for a company that sells maps?  Just license the maps from the company like Google, Yahoo, and everyone else.  Chee.  But more important than that, they obviously felt like he couldn't be the guy to lead them head to head against the likes of Apple, Google, and Microsoft (and all the OEMs who make phones using Android and soon Windows Phone 7).

Thing is, I don't like the sound of the new guy, Stephen Elop.  His statements to the press sound too reactive, not proactive.  The number one thing that's been hammered into my head over the years as I've watched the tech industry (and bashfully tried to do something in it myself) is the fact that good innovation is not created by listening to the customer and reacting quickly.  As Peter Drucker once noted (UPDATE: oh dude, my bad, it was Alan Kay, I hang my head in shame!), the best way to predict the future is to create it.  By listening to customers, you're not even making predictions, you're a step behind because you're following.  Maybe by the time you make it, someone's already beaten you to the punch, except the punch is in a location that you never would have imagined because you listened to the customer.  Customers have proven again and again that they don't know what they want if it hasn't been created yet.  As such, it takes an exceptional product visionary to create something new that people will buy in droves.  Henry Ford once noted, "If I had asked people what they wanted, they would have said faster horses."

Instead of talking about creating the future, Stephen Elop is talking about reacting to customer preferences to deliver solutions that make sense today.  He can't do that.  He needs to deliver solutions that make sense tomorrow.  Today's war has already been almost won, essentially now only a two-horse race between Apple and Google.  Tomorrow's war, we don't know what will happen.  Nokia needs to be working towards winning THAT war, the war that will happen in the age where functionality nonexistent today will be considered mainstream.  I dunno what it would be.  Augmented holographic UIs.  Super miniaturization.  Something that we consider absolutely stupid and useless today, but can't do without tomorrow.  Don't listen to the customer if you need to innovate.  It's death.  You need to give them pleasant surprises instead.  Better yet, mindbending pleasant surprises.  Why does he bring up so many examples of disruptive technologies that changed the world if he isn't going to say the words that commit Nokia to becoming a disruptor?  If they're just going to keep up with the Joneses, they might as well close up shop.  Technology has shown throughout history that it keeps falling in price, despite getting better and better.  You don't think we'll get what's considered an amazing iPhone today for less than $100 tomorrow?  It'll get there, which is why playing the low-innovation low-margin game is not a viable long-term strategy.  Look at Dell.

I'm especially worried because Elop's statements don't exactly enthuse commitment.  I hear him talk about guiding the company through a difficult period of change.  I don't hear him talking about leading the company out of that chaos to dominate the world.  He sounds like a classic turnaround CEO.  Keep the company alive, finally turn some profits, get the stock price to unexpected heights, and then cash out before things get bad because there's no real foundation for the future.  He and Mark Hurd would probably be good buddies.  Hurd, despite all the allegations of infidelity, looks like he was actually fired due to his poor CEO rating from his employees.  Too much focus on cost cutting and efficiency, not enough attention to R&D, innovation, and the future.  Yeah, HP managed to get amazing profits and market share, which surprised everyone, including me, but none of us realized it was at the sacrifice of technological innovation for the future.

Or maybe that's Elop's game.  Everything's lost in today's war anyway, so just buckle down, stabilize things, plug the leaks, and let someone else come in later to figure out the innovation bit.  But then what about the necessary R&D lead time?  What are they looking for, a fundamental change in our understanding of physics before they can start investing in becoming a technology leader again?  Righting the ship is important, but let the helmsman and the first officer take care of it.  The captain needs to plot the course.  Nokia's in a heavy 2nd (3rd, 4th, 5th?) mover position right now.  They've been leapfrogged by so many companies, it's hard to believe that any phones still run on Symbian.  Make no mistake, Symbian phones aren't exactly ripping up the market at the moment for new buyers.  They're at a critical point where they need to have a razor sharp focus to do something amazing, to totally and completely reinvent themselves culturally and technologically to be able to compete for the long-term future, like GM did.  I worry that we are seeing the death of a company that used to make really cool products.

OK, originally, I wanted to talk quickly about Google Instant.  But I'll limit my comment to this.  I'm really annoyed when a technologist talks about how technology will save time, as if our lives will become simpler and easier.  Technology has shown us throughout the past few decades that whenever it tries to make our lives easier by saving us time, it only makes our time more complicated and busy.  This would be due to Parkinson's Law, applied to capacity of time.  So please, can we please stop making those kinds of statements?  :)

Oh, and I haven't heard about the wondergirl Jessica Mah for a while.  Back when I read her blog now and then, she was obviously smart from how early she had graduated from school and all.  But I couldn't help but get the impression that she was really a bimbo.  Heck, she was making jokes about people coming to her blog for the sex appeal (OK, probably true, how many teenage female entrepreneurs are there?).  But I gotta say, what the heck?  This girl's gotta be for real, otherwise, how could she get so many A-listers investing, and even have to turn away investors?  OK, so now I'm jealous.  There, I said it.  :)

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