Who is REALLY the innovative one: Nokia or Apple?

Who is REALLY the innovative one: Nokia or Apple?

IRC on a Nokia 9110 Communicator

After Nokia released their quarterly results last week, analysts and reporters have been criticizing Nokia and pointing to Apple's iPhone as an example of how to do it right.

According to Bloomberg, one analyst said Nokia needs "the types of devices that people can use to download applications and the kind of devices that people can be interactive with". BBC wrote an article titled "Symbian to develop mobile apps". Nokia executives must be crying when they read such articles. Nokia has been in the App business for something like a decade, allowing third party developers to make applications for Nokia's smart phones long before the term "smart phone" was even in use. Anyone could become a App developer and recieve the free SDK on CD-ROM simply by applying trough e-mail to Nokias developer program. Nokia has been way ahead of everyone else in the smart phone business and yet a lot of people don't even know they even make smart phones.

Nokia executives may be crying, but they are not doing it in public. One former Nokia employee and now mobile industry consultant, Tomi T. Ahonen, however, is venting his frustration with this unjust public judgement of Nokia in the form of a very intense blog posting: Silly Silly Forbes: No its not Nokia's "Motorola Moment".. Very poor reporting.

Ahonen argues, with an excruciating amount of text, that Nokia is more innovative since Nokia had a number of technical firsts, such as 3 megapixels for the camera in 2006 while Apple reached 3 megapixels only this year.

It is not innovation to outdo your competition by picking a more expensive camera sensor from a Taiwanese component manufacturer's product catalog. It might make your phone better, but it does not make you innovative. In fact, having superior hardware does not guarantee that your phone is viewed as the better one.

Nokia may use five megapixel sensors in their phones and Apple only three but look at the giant photo site Flickr and their camera statistics and you'll see that the iPhone is far more popular than any Nokia phone for taking pictures and this thanks to the iPhone's innovative user interface.

Apple came late, with no experience in building cell phones and they used the same components that Nokia had already been using and, quite simply, built a better smartphone. THAT requires innovation.

Every cell phone manufacturer buys pretty much the same parts from the same component manufacturers and uses the same subcontractors to assemble all these components into phones. The difference is the operating system. Apple built a new and modern mobile operating system and an innovative user interface.

And OSX brought a lot more than usability simply by being modern such as a simple environment for software developers wanting to make those famous Apps. Yes, it has been possible to build applications for Symbian phones for years but if you start reading what Symbian developers are saying you will soon see that it is very difficult because Symbian is, in many ways, outdated. Developing Apps for the iPhone is, in comparison, fun. The large number of Apps for the iPhone and the low number for Nokia (despite years of work) is one of the reason the iPhone is looking so good. And the list goes on: how simple it is to install new software, how effortlessly the iPhone switches between 3G and WiFi when available, the share joy of actually browsing the web when you have that pinch motion for manipulating the page...

Innovation is a new way of doing something and building a new operating system with a great number of new and better solutions to old problems is innovation. The iPhone's famous ease of use is certainly the result of great innovation. Unfortunately, Ahonen repeatedly claims that "innovation has nothing to do with usability" and he is unable to see that usability is, in fact, the result of very innovative work - perhaps the most innovative work anyone has done in the mobile industry in the last few years.

Ahonen is right about every single thing he writes that Nokia did first and Nokia certainly has a history of innovation. Today, however, Apple is the one with an innovative phone and Nokia is the one with an old fashioned smart phone. From a user's point of view, the iPhone is quite unlike anything the competition can offer even though the technical specification might be similar.

Photo: Running a third party Telnet App on my Nokia 9110 to connect to a remote Unix server over a GSM data connection to the internet in 1999.