Nokia's open source advantage

Nokia's challenge? Sell more mobile phones. To do that, it needed to beat the competition on features. And to do that, it turned to open source.

Hold on, you may be saying, that doesn't sound right. Open source is good for many things, but sustainable competitive advantage isn't one of them. Anything you implement using open source today your competitors can implement tomorrow.

That's true, but it isn't the whole picture. In this case, it's important to look at what Nokia's real differentiators might be before we judge its solution.

There's more to adding features to a mobile handset than just miniaturization, fancy color screens, and headsets. Hardware can only take you so far. Throw software into the mix, however, and a whole new world opens up.

A PC in every pocket? Probably not. The industry tried that with PDAs and it didn't pan out. Low power, small screens, and half-baked input methods doomed those devices to a niche market of gadget freaks and the technology elite.

Cellular phones suffer many of the same drawbacks, but they have one universal feature that PDAs lack: robust network connectivity. Not only can you make voice calls on them -- still the most requested feature among American consumers -- but you're also guaranteed a full range of Web and Internet-enabled data services.

Think of a mobile handset as the quintessential thin client. Its underpowered processor and poor storage make it a lousy choice as an application platform. As the front-end UI to an application hosted elsewhere, however, it can be more than adequate. It can even excel.

Consider, too, that much of the enterprise market has already chosen the Web as its application-delivery platform of choice. Those Web apps are tailor-made for thin-client access. So, to capture that market, all Nokia needed was a Web browser -- albeit one robust and feature-rich enough to deliver the same functionality users have come to expect from desktop PCs.

Nokia could have invested resources to develop such a browser -- which it did for the current Series 60 browser. But that's not where the smart money is. Today, the rallying cry of Web developers is standards compliance. In effect, the Holy Grail for browser developers is to deliver a product that renders pages exactly the same as all their competitors' products do. Why should Nokia make the effort?

Instead, it went with WebCore, the open source Web-rendering engine from Apple Computer, which is based on the KDE Project's KHTML engine. In the short term, that gave Nokia first-mover advantage. Its competitors might implement a full-featured Web client tomorrow, but Nokia can deliver one today.

The bigger picture is that Apple's code freed Nokia to concentrate its development resources on areas where it really could gain competitive advantage. In Nokia's case, that means UI. For a manufacturer of consumer devices, implementing core technologies isn't half as important as making them usable -- something Apple must have known when it adopted open source as the basis for its own Safari browser.

The lesson here is that innovation doesn't always mean starting from scratch. For Nokia, and Apple, open source isn't an end in itself. It's a beginning -- one that allows these companies to concentrate on what they do best: delivering great products. Ask yourself whether your company is focused on doing the same. Are you using open source to your best advantage?