Why Has Nokia’s Netbook Got Windows, Not Linux?

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We knew Nokia had a netbook up its sleeve, but why go with Microsoft Windows? Because Nokia’s user interface skills aren’t good enough, and Linux would delay it, says Peter Judge

We all knew that Nokia had a netbook on the way, but the actual announcement today had some surprises. The company may be jumping into a seething mass of competition, but analysts think that Nokia has some strong cards to play when it adds the important information: price and availability.

“This was inevitable due to the success of netbooks, driven in part by other Telco manufacturers like Samsung,” said Ranjit Atwal, principal research analyst at Gartner for the PC market. “These PCs drive data traffic and are therefore attractive to telco’s.” Nokia had to have one, because it was “behind the curve,” he said.

“This is not an easy market to enter as it is already very competitive,” warned Atwal’s colleague Carolina Milanesi, Gartner research director for the mobile handset market. The whole netbook market might still be over-praised, she said: ” we are still establishing if a lot of the current success in sales is hype or if this space really has long-term potential”.

But how much will it cost, and how will it be sold? With its features, and the aluminium casing, it’s pretty obviously going to be a top-end device device: “Nokia is likely pricing this more as a premium device, and linking it to its services offering, to differentiate it,” said Milanesi.

“From the images it has released, the design looks to go some way to achieving differentiation,” said Pete Cunningham, senior analyst at Canalys, an analyst firm planning to explore these issues at its Mobility Forum in London in November. “We expect that Nokia will look to target operator channels for the distribution of this product, leveraging its relationships with operators, something that Samsung has recently seen success with,” said Cunningham, who sees netbooks and phones as distinct products, despite their overlaps.

“The Nokia brand and its relationship with the network operators might give it a bit of an upper hand over players like Asus and Acer,” said Milanesi – even though the inclusion of Nokia services might look like a further erosion of the operators’ ownership of the market and the users.

But why did Microsoft go with Windows? It had become more likely after Nokia announced plans to work with Intel, alongside a partnership with ARM which previously made a Nokia netbook with Google’s Android seem likely.
For Milanesi, the surprise is that Nokia used Windows, instead of its own Maemo Linux OS. “Many in the industry were expecting that,” she said.

That’s the part we may never know. Microsoft may well have made Nokia an offer it couldn’t reasonably refuse. And the choice was probably swung by two other usability factors.

On the one hand, Linux netbooks have had a lot of criticism. Much of this has been unwarranted, along the tired lines that Linux is not yet usable enough for serious business people – or for dumb consumers, depending wher the story is found. However that sort of effect has been enough to lead Asus to humiliatingly relegate the Linux version of the Eee to Toys R Us.

On the other hand, Nokia is rubbish at user interfaces. Historicaly, its systems are eventually well-enough liked, but that’s because they’ve been improved step-by-step, and users have become acclimatised to the Byazantine mess of menus the company usually lays on a product.

Even a product like the N97 – a new version of a fmailiar line – is such a user-interface calamity, that Nokia is probably well-advised not to build the UI on a product it wants to succeed quickly.

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“Using Windows will probably give Nokia a faster time to market and a brand that strengthens its own brand,” she continued. Nokia’s Symbian is too much of a phone OS to be easily packaged into a really usable netbook, she said. And Android was never an option, given the competition between Google and Nokia in the services space.

But, while Android fans may be disappointed this time – and their hopes for a Nokia Android-book were never very real – the ghost of the Android netbook is still hovering over this feast: “I believe it is precisely because players like Asus have been talking about deploying Android in netbooks that Nokia might have decided to make its move into this market,” said Milanesi.


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