Europe no longer leads in mobile

by on July 10, 2009 at 1:52 am

When I first started visiting Europe about 15 years ago Europeans used to love taunting me with their wonderful new phones that were, back then, years ahead of the devices we’d get in the United States.

It was a point of regional pride that even though Silicon Valley and Microsoft had thoroughly run away with the technology industry that Europe still had one industry that they could point to and say “you can’t take it all.”

Today that no longer is true and, worse, Europe is stuck in a texting rut.

What happened? Europe started buying its own hype and today its citizens are stuck using phones that are way behind those from Google, Apple, and Palm.

Now, today, I’m going to be visiting Nokia’s research lab in Cambridge, England, and I must disclose that Nokia is one of the sponsors of the Traveling Geeks tour that I’m on. I’ve been at the recent Nokia World where Nokia announced the N97, which is now shipping in Europe, but the N97 isn’t getting London’s cool kids hot and bothered like the N95 did.

At last night’s TechCrunch Europa Awards, I took stock of the devices that the coolest developers were supporting. Look at Marko Balabanovic as an example of the kind of geeks I saw. He’s a London-based developer who showed me one of the coolest iPhone apps I’ve ever seen. You aim your iPhone around the street and it tells you about places near you using the iPhone’s compass. It will ship “soon” and his app already ships on the Google Android phones. No, it does not support Europe’s own phones.

These are the kinds of developers who used to taunt me with their European-designed phones.

Now Nokia and Symbian employees are definitely keeping a stiff upper lip about all this. Nokia, in briefings recently, showed off its mapping and social networking services. They are pretty cool looking demos, but the problem is that their coolness is being overrun by all those pesky developers like Marko who are building far cooler things on the Google and Apple platforms.

It wasn’t lost on me that one of the largest cheers last night in the mobile category was for TweetDeck who has one of the hottest iPhone apps for Twitter (TweetDeck is a company started in London).

Heck, things have gotten so bad for Nokia, third-party developer wise, that in press comparisons of mobile platforms only iPhone and Palm are compared. Why not Nokia? Easy. Even Europe’s own best developers aren’t supporting Nokia/Symbian.

But why are Symbian’s top futurists so confident, as this CNET article reports? (I met a couple of Symbian employees last night at the TechCrunch affair and they were confident, too).

Well, they keep pushing market share, as if that matters to anyone. Nokia does, indeed, own most of the world’s market share for cell phones.

But here’s where my own observations in London’s tube (the subway system here) come in: the UK is stuck on texting. That’s all I see most people do with their phones.

That rut that Europeans are stuck in is going to doom them.

Nokia simply does not understand how important the Web is and it’s because they ride the same subways and see the same behaviors.

In San Francisco and New York we already know that the Web is more important than texting. But that’s partly because we just skipped the whole texting thing because our cell phones sucked so much for so long and because we were ahead of Europe in computer-per-citizen ratios for so long.

I’ve been using a Nokia cell phone here in Europe, and it’s a totally frustrating experience compared to the iPhone. I’m not the only one who’s noticed this. The bleeding edge developers in Europe have noticed it too, and they notice that their fellow citizens are stuck in the texting rut.

What happens when Europe gets out of that rut (and, it will, thanks to the leading edge developers?) Easy to see, in such a world Symbian will simply not matter any more.

So, what should Symbian do?

Listen to the Tower Bridge. It’s showing a “post-iPhone” and “post-Web” world. Huh? The Tower Bridge has a Twitter account. “So?”

Well, think of a world that will be here in about 2012-2015: one where every object in the world has a Twitter account. Won’t we need a new kind of device to deal with that world?

One that has real time search built in? One that has its own Twitter account, as well as give the best Twitter interface to the user of that device?

Palm only pushed the Pre a little bit toward that new world, with its integration of Facebook into its contacts.

Nokia needs to use its leadership in cameras and hardware to really bring a better information experience to its users. The Symbian challenge is to start over and build a UI that needs no clicks to do a bunch of tasks (getting to the Web browser today requires too many frustrating clicks) and to build a new data display that can bring us the real time world that Facebook, Twitter, and FriendFeed are pushing at us and we haven’t even seen the bulk of the real time innovations yet. At today’s TechCrunch Real Time Crunchup several new companies are shipping that will push this world dramatically further (I’ve gotten pre briefed) and that new world will open the opportunity for European mobile companies to change the game the way Steve Jobs did when he showed the world the iPhone.

Will the Europeans push their way onto the mobile leader table again?

I’m pessimistic. The Europeans who work at the mobile companies just aren’t using the right language with me that would demonstrate that they get it. They don’t have a Steve Jobs or, even, a Steve Ballmer.

Think this doesn’t matter? Well, dozens of times this week I have been asked as part of the Traveling Geeks tour “how does London compare to Silicon Valley?”

I usually am polite and say I’ve seen some stunningly cool companies, like Spotify (who won four TechCrunch Europa awards last night) but in the back of my head I remember how cocky the same entrepreneurs used to be when showing me their cell phones and noting how far ahead of the world they were. That cockiness is done and that has deep implications for entrepreneurs across Europe. They must now visit Cupertino and Mountain View to get access to customer bases.

Oh, Nokia, what are you going to do about this?