Tuesday, March 18, 2008

Buying a Cow, Just For the Hell of It

Nokia bought Trolltech. Unlike most cases where a Brobdingnagian company buys a much smaller company, there is a reasonable chance this won't become the typical sort of tragedy. Still, you have to ask, how much sense does this make? Nokia, it appears, bought a small cow when they could easily have continued to go to the store for milk.

If you stand back and squint a bit, it sort of makes sense: Nokia is the world's largest vertically integrated hardware and software platform company, but Nokia has had an undistinguished history with development tools. Trolltech's dual-licensed Qt is a key element of application development for KDE, the K Desktop Environment. Qt is also cross-platform, and Trolltech makes most of their money from being the world leader in cross-platform SDKs. Therefore it makes sense.

But there are numerous loose ends: Trolltech has been trying to penetrate the mobile software space with both internal development and acquisitions. While this isn't a large part of Trolltech's revenues, it is a very visible part of Trolltech's strategy prior to being acquired by Nokia.

From Trolltech's point of view, it makes a great deal of sense in terms of their mobile initiatives, or in any terms. Nokia is often referred to as “Tier Zero” of the mobile industry, and having the one company that represents 40% of the mobile market take you out is a win no matter what angle you view it from. Nokia has publicly stated Trolltech will continue to develop their PC oriented products. Trolltechs's customers will continue to buy them without worrying about competitive issues. Nokia isn't a significant player in PC applications, and with the possible exception of the small market segment for desktop sync software, the acquisition will create no competitive issues for PC software developers.

But what about VoIP and mobile handset makers? Trolltech's “Qt everywhere” initiative looks to become “Qt 40% of everywhere instead of the less than 1% of everywhere we were previously able to attain.” A win for Trolltech but decidedly precarious for existing mobile-oriented customers.

There is a minor muddle in MIDs, too, as Maemo will continue to be GTK-based, and other MID platform makers will find Nokia a plausible competitor, but that is all as hypothetical as the MID market itself.

The larger problem is among Trolltech's customers in the mobile handset market, e.g. Motorola, and in the VoIP market. Nokia's close relationship with Cisco puts Nokia's dual mode business handsets in competition with other VoIP endpoint devices, even desk phones, and some of those manufacturers are Trolltech customers. A small, perhaps unnoticeable, and certainly financially insignificant problem for Nokia, but a fairly big deal seen from the other side of the table.

Motorola has already unequivocally stated they will switch to GTK, after using Qtopia in all their Linux-based handsets. But that just addresses embedded graphics, and Trolltech has been trying to do a lot more than embedded graphics: The Greenphone suite, Qtopia Phone Edition, and their recent acquisition of Fonav have all been put in the shade by Nokia, which doesn't really need any of these, nor do they need to enable competitors. The future of these products was omitted from an otherwise upbeat and full-steam-ahead conference call announcing the acquisition. Probably no danger and considerable opportunity for the engineers working on these products, as they and their products get absorbed into the Mother Ship. Customers, not so much.

So, while buying a cow is a minor folly for Nokia, and a boon for customers of Qt for desktop application development, it is a serious competitive issue for anyone using Trolltech products in mobile and VoIP devices, including such highly visible products as Motorola handsets and the Sony Mylo. Trolltech had not yet come close to a combined mobile/VoIP solution, and that now may never happen, with Nokia preferring that S60 lead the way in IMS and dual-mode capabilities.

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