Apple and Nokia: Who approached who?


So I've taken a day or two and mulled over the news that Nokia and Apple are building a browser together and I think something more is happening here than is readily apparent. Let me explain.

First, this is odd news no matter what the eventual reason is for it. Nokia is driving many of us nuts with their smart phone browser evolution. As a developer and someone who wants to create products based on a mobile browser, the thing I'm looking for is consistency, but Nokia hasn't given us any at all. The first Series 60 phones only came with a WAP browser, then it looked like Nokia was going to permanently license or even buy Opera outright since it shipped with all of the 6600 phones. But then we come to find out that Nokia is working on their own XHTML browser technology - which they included alongside Opera. (To those who think that Nokia is using Opera as the core of their internal S60 browser, they're not. They licensed the app only, not the technology). But then they drop Opera from future handsets and we read about how Nokia is investing in Minimo, a mobile version of Mozilla and those of us who use FireFox on a daily basis had a nice little warm fuzzy about the day when we'd be able to use FF on our smart phones. But even then, each new Series 60 phone that comes out has a slightly different version of their internal browser, each time growing a bit more powerful (basic HTML and JavaScript support, etc). In general, it's been really hard to see what the hell Nokia is doing.

None of this makes much sense, I have to say. Opera and NetFront have had great browsers for years now, and getting better all the time. Why doesn't Nokia just save time and effort and license their technology outright - or in Opera's case, just buy the damn company, it's next door in Norway anyways. Opera's the browser they're going to use on the new Linux based 770, right? It's not like they don't have a tight relationship there. Or why don't they wait for the Minimo project to bear fruit? These slight changes to the internal browser (which you can't upgrade, by the way) is annoying! For Nokia to go in so many directions is nuts, especially for a technology so vital as their web browser.

So now we find out that Nokia is working with Apple to port WebCore and JavaScriptCore to Symbian. In light of the history above you can imagine my surpise. What?! Why?

The Occam's Razor of this - the simplest explanation - is that Nokia wanted to control their browser destiny as Apple has, wasn't happy with their internal development, their investment in Minimo or with licensing NetFront or Opera, so Nokia approached Apple and said something along the lines of "we're hip with this whole Open Source stuff now and we'd like to work with you to use the core of Safari for a mobile version." Apple of course said "sure, sounds good!" since Nokia is of course the world's largest manufacturer of mobile phones and they made the announcement.

This sorta sounds good, no? Yeah... But something smells wrong to me.

Nokia is mysterious at times, but I don't think they're particularly masochistic. Why throw away so much work on their internal browser and go with a whole new OSS code base? Remember, there's a lot of work that needs to be done still to make 1028 pixel wide web pages look good on 176 pixel wide Series 60 screens - or even next gen 352 pixel screens like in the Nokia N90. So it's not like they're just going recompile for Symbian S60 and be done with it, so it seems crazy. And even though Nokia is a multi-headed beast which has many divisions not coordinating with the others, this announcement didn't seem tied to any specific business unit. Unlike all the other browser announcements, this one came from the top.

So let's flip this scenario around, shall we?

What if it was actually Apple who approached Nokia about creating a new web browser based on their Safari OSS technology? Hey, now we have something for gossip, no? The situation then is that Apple has learned from past mistakes of relying on Motorola too tightly (think CPUs) and is looking around for other top-tier manufacturers to help them with their vision of the perfect mobile companion to OSX: the proverbial and mythical iPhone.

Now admittedly, this seems strange for Apple to be pitching these sorts of things to handset manufacturers since Apple itself is also a hardware manufacturer. But maybe Apple is wary of the thin margins of the mobile industry, and realizes that it is way too late to the party to start developing their own handset. Though Microsoft's strategy of goig to white label Asian manufacturers has some appeal (this is essentially what Apple is doing with the iPod, no?) Apple could get so much more penetration if they made deals with the current top-tier handset makers instead. Thus the Motorola and now Nokia deals. And despite Apple's diminutive market share in the PC market, I'm sure both of these companies would be eager to get a bit of that Apple glow on their products as well.

So, Apple comes up with the iPhone spec which includes must-haves like iTunes and iSync integration, as well as new innovative elements like mobile Dashboard apps using the WebCore and JavaScriptCore libraries, instead of J2ME, Symbian or Brew - the entire phone UI could be done on top of the browser. Super compelling UI with super easy to create apps which run on Apple and Nokia branded phones.

I've still got 12 months or so left in my iPhone prediction, so this to me is more of a clue than anything. Sure the wording of the press release just focuses on Nokia's interest in WebCore, but I think there's more to it than that.



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