Originally posted on the BIF Speak blog.
Walt Mossberg continued his conversations on day 2 of BIF-3, bringing storyteller Clayton Christensen up on stage. It was refreshing to see Christensen say that the cell phone is poised to disrupt the personal computer because I’m a firm believer in that, too. What was really fun for me was the conversation about Nokia vs. Apple. If you’ve gotten a coffee or a beer in me, you’ve probably heard me rant on and on about this, but never as articulate as Christensen and Mossberg. Now you’re all in trouble, because I think I can speak more lucidly and loudly about this.
Christensen said his money is on Nokia to build a platform that disrupts the personal computer. Mossberg replied that Nokia has made several tries to do this, and they all sucked. I completely agree with Christensen, and even with Mossberg (who, for the record, made it clear he wasn’t placing bets). I have two phones in my pocket at all times: a Nokia 6290 and an Apple iPhone. When geeks ask me which cell phone they should buy, I give them a rundown on the issues and a little demo. The first thing I tell them is that if they are a geek and love tinkering with things and hacking them to do stuff that they won’t do out of the box, get a Nokia phone (but don’t get the 6290; I got it because it was the cheapest phone I could find running the latest version of the webkit browser). Then I tell them that both platforms use the same wonderful web browser, WebKit, which is the engine that powers both Safari and the S60 Browser.
There’s no question that the iPhone is a powerful product, and it’s going to get better. But my money’s on Nokia, too, for pretty much the same reasons Christensen has. Christensen said that the iPhone is a sustaining innovation: it keeps the iTunes Music Store platform alive in the face of more and more cellular companies competing with Apple on music downloads. But if you pick up a high end Nokia phone today and spend time tinkering with it… I mean really spend the time: download some of the 3rd-party software for it, mess around with Nokia’s Python interpreter, tweak every setting, and maybe even look at the free SDK and write a Hello, World. What I think you’ll see is a simmering cauldron of disruptive innovation, with a not-so-pretty user interface.
If this doesn’t sound familiar to you, let me jog your memory. What is Mac OS X? It’s a simmering cauldron of not-so-pretty disruptive innovation: FreeBSD, NetBSD, Linux, the GNU Compiler Collection, the Apache web server, and much more. What Apple did was take a beautiful user interface (NEXTSTEP), make it even better, and put it on top of that mess. What happens when Nokia takes that crucial step?
update: I spoke with Walt Mossberg during the break, and he made an important point. It’s wrong to look at Mac OS X as just a pretty face on top of a mess of random bits, and what I wrote above frames it that way. The NEXTSTEP-derived bits that make Mac OS X so wonderful are a really thick part of the whole stack. And likewise, it would be wrong to look at Nokia’s Series 60 as just a mess of disjoint components; it has many usable bits, particular the S60 web browser, high on up the stack. Nokia still has a lot of work ahead of it. If I were them, I’d stop with the feature set they have now, and spend all my resources on making a user interface as good or better than the iPhone. This doesn’t mean changing their icons or rearranging the layout of controls. They need to refactor things in such a way that usability permeates the Series 60 operating system.