The Allegory of Treo

The following is a work of fiction.

The combination seemed unthinkable just a few years ago. Nokia envisioned itself as a substantial rival to Redmond, threatening to head off its computing dominance as the power of desktop computing shifted to pocket-size devices. But a series of miscues substantially weakened the company, leaving it little choice but to team up with the world’s largest software maker.

Although Nokia has pledged to continue using the Symbian OS in both handhelds and phones, the company has now significantly tied its fortunes to the rival it once denounced.

In doing so, Nokia is making a tough bet. The company is gambling that Microsoft’s operating system has advanced far enough to power a decent cell phone, while still having enough rough edges that Nokia can carve out a niche by going beyond the standard Windows Phone software. In doing so, Nokia hopes it can avoid the fate of being just another clone cranking out hardware on Microsoft’s behalf.

Microsoft, meanwhile, has scored a significant win in its decade-long quest to crack the mobile market. In wooing Nokia, Microsoft has brought a one-time rival into its fold and ideally gained a new creative force as it tries to move its PC empire into the burgeoning market for cell phones.

“Nokia always did great work, and so we lusted after some of those things that they do well,” Ballmer told reporters at Monday’s launch.

The partnership is not totally out of the blue, of course. The two companies offered a glimpse at the detente last year, announcing a pact that allowed Symbian OS-based smartphones to connect directly with Microsoft’s Exchange servers for corporate e-mail and calendar information.

In its secret meetings, Nokia execs managed to convince their Microsoft counterparts to build several software hooks they needed into the latest version of Windows Phone. The changes allowed Nokia to add some handy features into the Windows version of the N series phones. One new trick allows Nokia owners to ignore an incoming cell call, instead sending a brief text message to the caller. A second feature allows Nokia owners to navigate multiple voice-mail accounts using VCR-like buttons, rather than having to know that “5” is the key for fast forward or remember that “7” saves voice mail at work, but deletes it at home.

A key question, though, is whether Microsoft will give Nokia enough room to innovate in the future, now that it has successfully wooed the device maker. By going with Microsoft, Nokia is letting go of one of the key differentiators between its products and those from better-known competitors.

Elop said he understands the risk and only undertook it with assurances that Nokia would be able to build enough software on top of the OS to make his products stand out.

“It was the only way we felt it could work for us,” he said at the Monday press conference.

Executives from both companies suggest that the Nokia-Microsoft relationship, forged at those meetings in Cannes and New Orleans, will continue to be close. But it remains to be seen whether Nokia will retain its individuality now that it has the Microsoft imprimatur.

Wirt acknowledges that there are no formal procedures in place that ensure that Nokia will get the things it asks for the next time, or the time after that. “It’s functioned more as a relationship-type thing.”

Elop said Nokia could try to patent particularly strong advances, but in general he said the company believes the best way to stay ahead is to keep cranking out new products.

“We have ideas about many things that we didn’t get to do in this version,” he assured reporters.

But for all its ideas, Nokia is still a relatively small company. And given that it has pledged continued support for the Symbian OS, it must now divide its limited engineering resources between two incompatible efforts.

Elop acknowledged that the challenges of developing for two entirely different operating systems are enough to keep his firm hopping. He emphatically shook his head back and forth when asked if Android and MeeGo-based Nokia phones might be next.

“We don’t need another operating system,” he said, adding later, “It’s too much effort.”

This fictional article was created by taking an actual article from 2005 about Palm and Microsoft (Palm’s tale of Treo intrigue – CNET News) and changing the words “Palm” for” Nokia”, and “Colligan” for “Elop”, “Ballmer” for “Gates”, “Treo” for N series (or Nokia) and “Symbian” for “PalmOS”. A few paragraphs about the mechanics of the deal process were deleted.

Credit: This tweet from Charles Arthur.