Death Star or Nova

7. Death Star or Nova?

My first visit to Finland to meet Nokia coincided with a period of particularly cold weather. It was the evening of Monday 27th January, 1997. Along with Juha Christensen and Mark Gretton, I flew to Helsinki, where Juha had a hired car waiting for a two hour drive north to Tampere. Juha and Mark had suffered an uncomfortable flight from Helsinki to Tampere a few weeks earlier, on account of buffeting from turbulent weather, and preferred on this occasion to drive. When we finally arrived in Tampere, it was well after midnight. As we briefly walked outside, my face burned with the bitter frost of the night-time air. The temperature shock was a visceral reminder that I was in a very different environment from the one I had experienced in my nine previous years in software development at Psion.

During the car journey, Juha’s mobile phone had rung. It was a call from one of his industry acquaintances. The caller asked Juha, knowingly, “So, what are you doing in Finland? I wonder who you’re meeting there, eh?” Apparently he had called Juha earlier, and he had received a message from the network telling him the call could not be completed. The network message had made it clear that it was a Finnish mobile network. Woops.

This question caused us some consternation. Our trip to Finland was meant to be ultra-secret. I even wrote into my Psion Agenda, “Trip to Egypt”, making a play on the fact that we used the word “Nile” as the codename for Nokia. No one should know that we were talking to Nokia.

Things were very different, seventeen months later, on 24th June 1998. On that day, Pekka Ala-Pietilä, President of Nokia Mobile Phones, stood on a stage in central London alongside David Potter and Colly Myers of Psion, to convey Nokia’s public support for Psion’s EPOC software. He contributed this quote to the press release announcing the formation of Symbian that day:

One of the main principles of Symbian is to maintain and promote the top-level usability and scalability both in products and concepts. As an uncompromised application platform, EPOC forms a reliable and innovative path towards the next generation mobile communications devices. For Nokia, the global leader in wireless data, it is a natural step to be a partner in founding Symbian, a step that will take wireless devices into the next millennium.

On the same stage stood David Brown, chairman of Motorola UK, and Johan Siberg, President of Ericsson Mobile Communications. Ericsson’s quote in the press release signalled an intention for ongoing involvement with Symbian:

Ericsson is fully committed to working with industry partners in bringing about an open common software standard for the benefit of users everywhere. We are also committed to making best use of our technology in providing the best products for our customers. Our ownership of Symbian is absolutely in line with this and I am excited about being part of a joint venture company that will deliver major benefits to this ever-growing market.

Not to be outdone, Motorola declared its support too:

Motorola is pleased to announce its intentions to become a member of Symbian. We are deeply committed to global standards to ensure the continued growth of the wireless industry. Symbian’s efficient EPOC operating system will enable the addition of rich functionality to wireless devices without compromising product performance and reliability. We are convinced this will be an important element to creating the connectivity solutions our customers will desire and demand.

This chapter tells the story of the transformation of Psion Software – created in 1996 as a wholly owned division within Psion Group – into Symbian, where Psion was only a minority shareholder. It’s a story of increasingly intense and increasingly public relationships with Nokia, Ericsson, and Motorola. But it’s also a story of a near miss. Before agreeing to the formation of Symbian, Psion Group directors were seriously thinking of a very different future for Psion Software. The two scenarios were known as “Nova” and “Death Star”. Nova was conceived within Psion Software, whereas Death Star was part of Psion Group’s contingency planning.

Living with secrets

In 1997, Nokia had two reasons to keep their interest in EPOC confidential.

First, Nokia did not want to disrupt their already-strained working relationship with Geoworks, the supplier of the GEOS platform software for their existing Nokia 9000 communicator. Nokia were deeply committed to at least one follow-on project with GEOS, and they were contemplating a roadmap of several additional GEOS-based products after that. Nokia wanted to prevent any news reaching the ears of Geoworks personnel that would demotivate them and prevent them from working with full effectiveness on these new products. Geoworks were already in some financial difficulties and were about to announce they would miss their financial targets. Nokia saw it as important that Geoworks should find no new cause to question their investment strategy.

Indeed, during one of my visits to Tampere, I was once asked to step back into a meeting room, rather than walk to reception as previously planned. That was because my Nokia colleagues had spotted some Geoworks staff in the reception area. It was important to avoid the risk of an unintended meeting.

Memories of that incident came flooding back to me several years later, when the boot was on the other foot. By that time, Symbian had become the incumbent operating system, and there were rumours that we would in turn be displaced, in high-end devices, by a new, Linux-based system (eventually to become known as Maemo). I realised that there could be reasons for Nokia being selective in how much information they would allow Symbian employees to find out about their plans for Maemo. As it happens, Nokia managed that relationship well: the possibility of displacement by Maemo did help spur better performance in Symbian, over a number of years.

A later transition was handled much less well: the plan to displace Symbian by Windows Phone, as announced to the world in very stark terms by Stephen Elop, Nokia’s new CEO, on 11th February 2011. That announcement had exactly the kind of impact that the previous generations of Nokia management had sought to avoid: it took a great deal of the wind out of the sails of ongoing Symbian projects throughout the mobile industry.

A second reason for Nokia to keep their interest in EPOC confidential in 1997 was that they wished to avoid prematurely alerting other phone manufacturers to what they had found. They wanted to take the opportunity to gain deeper expertise in EPOC – and a stronger capability to influence the evolution of EPOC – ahead of any involvement by their competitors.

[ SNIP ]

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