When an opportunity is not a problem

Features

By Keith Dyer at the 3GSM Congress in Cannes

The old motivational handbook had it that there were no problems, only opportunities. But when does an opportunity become a problem?

The answer may have been evident at Nokia’s headline press conference at 3GSM in Cannes, where several speakers from the Finnish mobile totem reinforced several buzzwords with the ruthless efficiency of an on-message New Labour MP with a direct feed to Alistair Campbell’s thought processes.

First among these was, yes, “opportunity”, where Nokia have decided their future lies. Here, the network equipment, handset and mobile services giant has decided that opportunity lies in emerging markets, which is fair enough, but also in mobile music, multimedia convergence and peer to peer video “sharing.” All of which may well represent several opportunities, but incredibly hard ones. Hard enough, almost, to be regarded as problems. 

One indicator of how hard Nokia has been thinking about stitching this together is the announcement of a partnership with Microsoft to integrate its Windows Media Player PC technology with Nokia’s OMA DRM and mobile compression  technologies. It was just as well that by this stage the picture of the handsome gent with what looked suspiciously like iPod headphones, used to illustrate the wonders of mobile music, had been erased from the big backscreen. Because, of course, the success of the iPod and, more importantly iTunes, has shown that mobile music download services are chiefly accessed and managed from PCs (and Macs). So now the (still, just) leading handset vendor and the PC giant have buried several hatchets over mobile OS to attack the problem of differing formats and systems between the online and mobile world.

This opportunity, the chance to crack mobile music, is proven, Nokia says, by the success of 3UK’s video jukebox service, which saw 10 million full track downloads in the six months since its launch. 3, of course, is a Nokia customer.

Another “opportunity” that has been giving Nokia plenty of pause for thought is customization. Scoring well over a dozen mentions in a speech from the head of the handsets division, Olli-Pekka Kallasvuo, customization means Nokia giving operators the chance to brand phones, and the software and applications on them. Of course, this “opportunity” for Nokia has also been a huge bloody problem for them, as ODMs fully geared only for customization have been the provider of choice for many 3G operators, including within the hallowed smartphone market. So Nokia is addressing this “opportunity” by providing one-off customizable versions of new generic phone releases. Example, the 6101, a new release from Nokia has been provided to China Mobile as the 6102, with the words China Mobile written on the plastic cover of the phone, as well as offering a branded user interface to China Mobile’s own specification.

It kicks against the grain a bit to see Nokia as an ODM, and that is because of course it isn’t, but it is making the move towards the customization “opportunity” that it sees only after years of resisting precisely that move. The process was set in chain last year when Nokia announced it would be producing Vodafone live! Themed handsets, the lack of which had kept them of that operator’s roster for 3G handsets. This trickle seems to have become a flood, and now the message of the moment is that if you are an operator and you want your own bespoke handset then why, the boys in the backroom will be only too happy to knock one up for you.

Final buzzword, and one intended to convey the new infrastructure which the new Multimedia services from the new customized handsets will exploit, is convergence. We had to stop counting the number of ‘convergence” mentions during Anssi Vanjoki, Multimedia general manager’s speech. But believe it, convergence is the key to the mobile future, and Nokia, from the handsets to the service platforms, is behind it.

For Vanjoki, the idea of convergence is an “opportunity”, but it is still a problem for the mobile world, because there is an underlying assumption that the operators and their suppliers will be able to keep the Internet genie corked. But why should they, and how could they? Nokia and Microsoft can announce all the joint ventures they like to allow users to get exactly the same customer experience on a mobile as on their home PC but the experience of internet service providers is that they then become access providers, providing and extracting little of added value. So converged, customized, devices and services may well offer a series of opportunities for Nokia, but more than a few headaches along the way as well.