Microsoft and Nokia: Death by management

When Steve Ballmer announced that he was retiring, I said on Twitter that the announcement was unsurprising but that Microsoft needed a surprise to replace him. Ever since Microsoftie Stephen Elop took the helm of Nokia, everyone has been predicting that Microsoft would scoop up the fallen mobile giant. The speculation only intensified when Elop decided that the only way to save Nokia’s burning platform was to abandon its own operating system and adopt Microsoft’s minority mobile platform. At a conference in 2011, I asked fellow speaker and media innovator Robert Tercek what he thought of a potential Microsoft-Nokia tie up, and he said, “Tying together two rocks doesn’t make them float.”

Now Ballmer has followed up his rather predictable decision to retire with a rather predictable acquisition, a big chunk of Nokia. I am sure that in Ballmer’s mind he was trying to demonstrate boldness. He has instead shown just how unimaginative he is as a leader. He’s run out of time to launch Microsoft into a new era of growth so instead he’s decided to build a bigger corporate beast.

Microsoft’s Windows empire is besieged by Google’s Android and Apple’s iOS, and Ballmer and his lieutenants knew they needed to boost their mobile efforts. But how does this acquisition help that? While Microsoft feels like it is just past its peak but still has its strengths, Nokia’s position is much more precarious.

In the PowerPoint explaining the acquisition, Microsoft said that this acquisition would accelerate growth. Pray tell how? Nokia has seen its smartphone share collapse in the last three years, from 34.2 percent to 3 percent. Looking at that slide deck, I see a company in denial. They say that success in phones will drive success in tablets and success in tablets will drive success in PCs. To achieve this, Microsoft would need Nokia’s Lumia line to take off like a rocket, and they also need to sort out their own tablet strategy. Writing off $900 m on their Windows RT Surface tablets means they need a tablet strategy. It doesn’t mean they have one.

Microsoft is facing The Innovator’s Dilemma. They have a couple of lucrative business lines that are under pressure – Windows and Office, but both face competition. PC sales are flagging, and many people are finding that tablets are good enough for most of what they do. In terms of Office, Microsoft is under pressure from cloud competitors such as Google.

Now there is a lot of talk of Elop replacing Ballmer at the helm of Microsoft? Really? He has done precious little to right the ship at Nokia, and most of his strategies have yet to show real results.

Microsoft and Nokia both needed a new vision, a coherent strategy to the relentless change in technology, but instead of inspirational leadership and a clear headed view of how the companies need to adapt, they have an uninspired tie up.

The Lord of the Rings OS: One OS to rule them all?

Convergence – the combination of multiple entertainment and communication devices and platforms – has been one of those terms tossed around for decades. I first wrote about it in the mid-1990s when I was at university. It has been a rather quixotic quest until now. The handheld devices weren’t powerful or flexible enough. They didn’t have enough storage. Set-top boxes and televisions were pretty dumb in terms of what they could do. They did one thing really well and weren’t extensible. However, we’re starting to see the first glimmer of the pieces falling into place. As Rob Andrews of wrote ahead of the recent launch of Google TV, “Innovation in the connected-TV space is about to explode, in to several, rival parts.” Moreover, it’s not just connected TVs but connected everything – TVs, tablets, phones and computers.

Apple, of course, has been knitting together its vision around OS X and its little brother, iOS. Microsoft has been trying to push this as well for years. While years in the making, their efforts are only now maturing to the point where they are actually compelling. Microsoft tying their new mobile OS to XBox 360 might be a very smart play. Apple’s iOS universe of iPhone, iPad and Apple TV shows their vision.

The two big consumer computer OS makers aren’t the only ones in this game. Motorola is showing off advanced demos of its phones and set-top boxes seamlessly share content, and KDDI in Japan has been using an earlier version of the system for its au Box service. Motorola is now adding its social-network mad Motoblur interface to its set-top boxes. Yes, indeed, it is all blurring together.

Google now has its TV offering with Sony, Logitech and other partners, and this brings together connected televisions, Blu-Ray players and the Android platform on the TV and mobile phones. You can now search broadcast and internet video content just as you search for things on the web. Google TV also runs Android apps and connects nicely to Android phones.

The dark horse in this race is MeeGo, the marriage of Intel’s Mobile and Nokia’s Maemo Linux-based efforts. The goal is the same, to knit together a seamless experience across mobile, home entertainment and other devices such as tablets and netbooks. MeeGo phones are expected to appear in early 2011. Intel believes that building an OS from the ground up for multiple platforms is superior to Google’s approach to drive Android to a range of platforms.

Intel and Nokia definitely have the hardware background, but the interface and content partnerships will be key to this. As recent reviews of its recently released flagship N8 smartphone show, Nokia has the hardware knowledge to make great phones, but it needs to radically rethink its user experience. With consumer electronics, you have to make powerful hardware that is so simple to use that it borders on seeming magical. Will MeeGo be a clean break from its past? We’ll have to see.

Whether you call it convergence or the post-PC era, to resurrect another decade-old phrase, the game is really on now with players from the computer, internet, consumer entertainment and content industries all approaching this from slightly different angles. This will remake technology, entertainment and information, and the battle is now on.