Nokia Could Make A Cuckold Of Microsoft

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Nokia and Microsoft are still in the honeymoon period of their smartphone union, but Nokia is already looking out for a tablet mistress, says Sophie Curtis

Microsoft may be feeling like a betrayed lover, following rumours this week that Nokia is planning to opt for either Android or MeeGo to spearhead its yet-to-be-announced tablet strategy.

Last month, Nokia wed Microsoft, adopting Windows Phone as its primary smartphone platform. Now, according to a source quoted by Reuters, the Finnish phone maker is still considering its options for tablets. This non-committal attitude, together with the suggestion that Nokia wants its first tablet device to be “distinctive”, suggests that Nokia is planning to play away.

Who will win Nokia’s favour?

Android has proved itself to be a strong competitor in the tablet market, with analysts predicting that tablets running Google’s operating system will overtake the Apple iPad’s market share by 2014. However, as Nokia CEO Stephen Elop  has already pointed out, the company could have difficulty differentiating itself within that ecosystem.

Video: MeeGo Tablet OS

There is also the MeeGo option. Formed last year by the merger of Nokia and Intel’s Linux-based platforms Maemo and Moblin, MeeGo was going to be Nokia’s future smartphone platform, until Elop realised that its arrival at the end of 2011 would be too late, given the company’s operating system crisis.

For now, things appear to have gone quiet on the MeeGo front, with Nokia doing its best to play down industry expectations. However, Intel CEO Paul Otellini remains bullish about the prospects for the operating system, and practical demonstrations of MeeGo at Mobile World Congress last month revealed a relatively advanced platform, optimised for tablets.

Nokia’s use of MeeGo to springboard its move into the tablet market would certainly fulfil the company’s aim of creating a distinctive product, but would also run the risk of it becoming a niche device. Like Maemo, MeeGo will not necessarily appeal to the mass market.

Microsoft: the jilted lover?

The thing that baffles me – and maybe I am missing something here – is why Windows Phone 7 (or at least a modified version of it) is not being considered as an option. Yes I know Microsoft is determined that its eventual tablets should run the full Windows operating system rather than the stripped-down Windows Phone OS but, frankly, I think that is misguided.

Windows 7 is clearly not optimised for tablets, as is evident to anyone who has attempted to use a mobile device running the platform – such as Motion’s CL900 tablet, for example. The forthcoming Windows 8, on the other hand, will support system-on-a-chip (SoC) architectures, in particular ARM-based systems, indicating that Microsoft intends to use this OS to make its tablet move.

The latest estimates suggest that Windows 8 will appear in June at the earliest – with some suggesting that Microsoft won’t release an iPad competitor until 2012 – putting the company at serious risk of missing the boat. “If 2011 is the year of the tablet wars, Microsoft will be awfully late suiting up for that battle,” said Gartner analyst Michael Gartenberg earlier this month. “It’s not a good position to be in.”

Meanwhile, Microsoft already has a fully formed mobile operating system, which is optimised for touch-screen devices, sitting in the attic. Windows Phone 7 has received lukewarm reviews from those who tested it on smartphones, but in many ways the OS is better suited to tablets.

Hubs beat apps

Microsoft has pioneered the use of the “hub-oriented” interface, consolidating both applications and web content into an intuitive and easy-to-access format. The organisation of content into categories, such as ‘social’ and ‘media’, is far more akin to the cutting-edge tablet operating systems that are now emerging – such as MeeGo and HP’s WebOS – than the apps-based layout pioneered by Apple, and later imitated by Google – which was designed for phones, not tablets.

I would argue that this is, in fact, the future for tablets. While an apps-based interface currently feels familiar, due to the proliferation of iOS and Android-based devices, the use of ‘panels’ (in MeeGo’s case) or ‘cards’ (in the case of WebOS) – or indeed hubs – is much more logical.

Instead of an ever-expanding mass of icons scattered haphazardly over the screen, all the content is organised neatly into categories that can be instantly accessed from the homepage, giving a much richer user experience and greater scope for personalisation. Users are presented with a virtual representation of each segment of their life, and they can side-sweep between these different segments, where all the information they need is integrated together.

Simplistically, it’s the difference between having to individually log into six different email accounts to check your messages, or having all those those emails feed into a single inbox. It just makes sense.

Microsoft should play its advantage

So why isn’t Microsoft making the most of it? Windows Phone 7 was the first operating system to organise information this way, and now Microsoft seems to want to limit its potential, and allow competitors to take the lead. Worse than that, it is stubbornly working on a tablet-optimised version of Windows (Windows 8), which will only lead to greater fragmentation within the brand.

Microsoft is showing worrying signs of going down the same path as Google, which also tried to develop multiple light-weight operating systems simultaneously. There is no doubt that Android has been a spectacular success, but the victim of the tale is Chrome OS, which has become no more than a white elephant.

If Microsoft is serious about gaining a foothold in the tablet market, it needs to act now and try to play its advantage – and right now that advantage is its intimate relationship with Nokia. It’s time for Microsoft to turn on the charm.

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