Did Nokia Pull an Osborne?

One of the great folklores of the technology industry is the story of the Osborne Computer Corporation and their demise due to an ill-timed product announcement. According to the tale (of which the details may or may not be accurate), Osborne pre-announced an upcoming new computer in an effort to stave off competition. But instead of wooing customers from their competitors, this announcement led to the sudden cancellation of orders for their current computer model. They could not ship their new model for several months, inventory piled up even with drastic price cuts, and in the mean time, the lack of cash flow killed the company and they filed bankruptcy. Regardless if it is completely accurate, the story is so well-known that the term “Osborning” or “pulling an Osborne” is understood to mean when a company’s announcement of a future product kills the sales of its current products.

I bring up this bit of tech lore because perhaps Nokia has Osborned its current line of Symbian smartphones, or at least it seems they are very afraid they have. By publicly aligning themselves with Microsoft’s Windows Phone 7 operating system, many questions arose over the future of the Symbian line of phones. Nokia didn’t do themselves any favors by not clearly defining their intention for Symbian. They only gave a very confusing statement by calling Symbian their “franchise platform”, virtually ensuring that anyone who has any vested interest in the platform was left in limbo. I myself questioned how Nokia would be able to successfully split focus among Symbian and Windows Phone 7.

Now a Microsoft executive is publicly urging Symbian developers not to abandon that platform. This is highly unusual that an executive of a company tries to bolster a platform with which they virtually compete. Of course, now that Microsoft and Nokia have partnered it is somewhat understandable, but it is still very strange that Microsoft would make this announcement instead of Nokia. It appears to me Nokia fears that the Symbian development community doesn’t believe what Nokia is saying so they figured they might believe Microsoft.

Yet, even Microsoft’s statement is confusing as in virtually the same breath they encourage Symbian developers to stick with it, they also encourage them to get familiar with Windows Phone 7. The entire situation reminds me greatly of politicians spinning damage control. The common perception is that Nokia is abandoning Symbian and so developers are hesitant to continue to support that platform, and I’m sure certain large corporate buyers are questioning the platform as well. Nokia is trying to manage the situation so that they don’t get Osborned, because if the bottom falls out of the Symbian market before they get rolling with Windows Phone 7, it could greatly hurt Nokia’s chances to remain a significant player in the smartphone market – which ironically is exactly what they are trying to achieve by partnering with Microsoft. As I mentioned in my previous article, this is the risk they felt they had to take, but perhaps they didn’t anticipate the Osborne Effect.

Which just goes to show that those who don’t study their tech history are doomed to repeat it!

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