Nokia struck again, it seems. This time? No, not another multi-billion dollar acquisition such as Navteq but another tiny start-up, namely the “boutique” travel social network Dopplr, which the Finnish telecoms giant allegedly gobbled up for anywhere between €10-15m. Hm. Hm Hm…
Dopplr’s Business Case
Let’s see what Dopplr does (besides its co-founder [and angel investor] being an old Nokia hand): the idea is to share trips with friends so that a) people coincidentally going to the same place at the same time (“what??? you will be in Barcelona in the second week of February, too???”) will find each other and b) they can share cool and “unique” tips from other travelers. It is (was?) one of the group of location-aware social networks that have been and are still waiting to come out of cover.
Nokia’s Master Plan
The deal is great for the Dopplr guys who seem to have made a nice return and the pieces of the jigsaw on a very, very, very high level seem to make sense: Nokia is assembling a location-based empire. They acquired Navteq in what was Finland’s largest acquisition ever, they bought German location social network Plazes, and now Dopplr. And it now all comes together at Ovi Maps (which looks quite good!). Makes all sense, huh? The rationale was – arguably – to do to sat-nav systems what they did to (small) digital cameras: kill them and incorporate it into their phones (or multimedia devices). When Nokia moved to Carl-Zeiss lenses, mobile phone camera were basically on par with low- and mid-tier digital cameras. Why carry 2 devices if 1 will do the same job. Easy! And boy did it work!
So, let’s do the same with maps. And, more importantly perhaps, do not maps (and location-awareness in general) find a completely new way of justification in mobile phones, i.e. in devices that are, well, intrinsically mobile? Yes, it does. When Steve Jobs premiered the original iPhone, he famously ordered coffee from the nearest Starbucks, using a maps application. Simple, right? Wooing the masses but nothing much in it, right?
But! On the maps side, Nokia competes against Google Maps (this is what Jobs was using), which is free (if one leaves aside the probably not insignificant investment that will have gone into this service with its various extensions such as Streetview et al). It also has an open API and many, many people use this. It is embedded on the iPhone (Jobs again) and most people I know use it on their Blackberry because it is better than RIM’s own offering. A free download to most phones, Nokias included.
The Impact of (Fairly) Open Networks
Now, I never got these highly specialized things anyway. I find them way to complex to handle: when I am going on a business trip, I am normally much too busy to feed data in some travel network or other. And when I am going on a personal vacation, I am a) even busier and b) want to be left alone (normally). Oh, and did you see that Twitter plans something like this, too?
But even aside from this, when it comes to “being found”, all my friends (real and virtual) knew through my blog, through Twitter and Facebook that I was going to France this summer. Do I really need another, specialized service for this, over and above the ones that can provide that information and also everything else? In other words: does it make sense to try and hone a super-focused service when similar (if not identical) results can – and already are being – achieved through smart filters on networks that have somewhat of a head-start when it comes to active users? I mean, Facebook has more than 300m users, MySpace – even if it seems to be struggling a little lately – will have more than 150m. And then you have Twitter, Bebo, Hi5, Orkut, StudyVZ, etc, etc, etc. – that is more than Nokia sells all year.
Now, the existing players are adding geographical awareness as an additional feature to their services. I mean, even YouTube is doing it!
But the real point is: whoever uses one of these (say, when you are in Brazil, you use Orkut), there is a certain likelihood that your friends will, too. Otherwise, you would not be on it. Need more? I doubt it.
On top of that, it is – arguably – much easier to integrate a location-based function into a network that already has hundreds of millions of users (and I am not talking of hundreds of millions phone users because they only are potential users of any service that might come with the phone) than to build one. Nokia does certainly have a great starting point (it sells more devices per year than Facebook and Twitter users combined; see – old – numbers here) but they are not with Nokia because it provides such a great network but because their phones are good.
When it comes to services, it has become an issue of today’s mash-up world where access and resulting services go across a variety of – more often than not – open offerings rather than tight proprietary ones, and Nokia seems to be struggling of getting to grips with this. Some commentators compared it with Yahoo!‘s M&A swoop in order to try and grab back the love it lost to Google and others. Even if one isn’t so harsh, it seems obvious that the thought pattern behind Nokia’s thinking might be a little outdated. I stand to be corrected (and would love to be since Nokia has brought a lot of really great stuff to the world) but that is what is worrying me. So congratulations again to the Dopplr team again but, dear Nokia, for the time being I remain skeptical as to the commercial sense of it (and, yes, I appreciate that €10-15m is but a fly speck on your balance sheet if it fails…).
Nokia launched its new Ovi platform to great fanfare. Ovi is apparently Finnish for “doors“, which gives a hint on what they intend to do: lots of door-opening to “delivering experiences and services”, which now is their business according to CEO Kallasvuo.
There is not too much on tangible details so far. Ovi is supposed to be the door (geddit?) to a bundle of services, namely their new music service, their revived N-Gage gaming brand (now a service and not a device anymore; good New York Times article here) and Nokia Maps. Then, it is said, it shall also “the entry point for other Web and mobile services”. Which ones? Dunno…
Nokia is of course perfectly positioned to try and unify a content experience on the fragmented mobile space: its massive market share in most markets around the world allow it to push its platform onto a lot of existing devices. As an attempt of unifying the scattered environment, this is probably as good as it will get in the shorter term, so fingers crossed!