Over the last few weeks I have been reading the 800 page book by David Wood on Smartphones and beyond: Lessons from the remarkable rise and fall of Symbian.
It’s fascinating reading especially if, like me, you developed Symbian apps and worked at Symbian. It’s useful reading even if you aren’t in any way linked to Symbian as many of the learnings are just as applicable today. Don’t let the 800 pages put you off. There are lots of press releases, blog and news articles that you don’t really have to read entirely and the latter portion of the book hasn’t much to do with Symbian or necessarily mobile at all and delves into David’s other passion of predicting what might lie ahead. In fact, if you are interested in this kind of stuff you are better skipping this part and instead reading ‘Anticipating 2025’ which is part authored by David and includes similar material.
Back to the Symbian book, it describes how Symbian’s loss of control of the UI, to Nokia, affected the OS. It describes the difficult situation when your customers (licensees in Symbian’s case) aren’t the end user (network operators, consumers). It also shows how there can be conflicts of interest when your shareholders are your customers and how they can prevent the company from exploring what could be more profitable or successful areas. It also demonstrates how it’s easy to under-estimate competitors who have taken up recent easy-to-deploy commoditised solutions for which you have historically had to use a customised solution to which you are now tied. It describes how large software is difficult and differentiates between team agile and enterprise agile. The book also shows it’s possible to consider creating custom solutions for customers but to make them pay through consultancy.
There’s a useful observation that recruiting the best is important. If your don’t then when your recruits recruit further people there can be downward spiral as people recruit weaker and weaker people so as to protect themselves. The book shows how technical debt and strategic debt can cripple a large company (Nokia) thus advantaging faster-moving newcomers such as Google and Apple. There’s also a possible explanation of why Stephen Elop killed Symbian so quickly rather than slowly, a strategy that lead Nokia to financial ruin. You can also learn how David’s openness, while representing the ‘open’ Symbian Foundation, caused him to be asked to leave his job.
Many of the insights can be used to provide advice to today’s startups. For example, if you are thinking you can’t compete with an incumbent, there’s a possibility you can. They will be much much slower, especially if you can use commoditised solutions while they use custom solutions.