Ovi Store Squeaks at App Store Giant

My initial reaction to Nokia’s Ovi Store is “Huh, this is it?” Today, the mobile application marketplace opened for business in nine countries—Australia, Germany, Ireland, Italy, Russia, Singapore, Spain, United Kingdom and United States. I really expected more, as in content. Where are those supposedly tens of thousands of applications already available for Symbian OS variants S40 and S60?

According to the U.S. store, Ovi has 1,365 mobile applications for 125 handsets. For my N96, Ovi Store lists 990 and 661 for the 5800 XpressMusic I’ve been testing. Apple’s App Store has how many? About 50 times more?

In fairness, numbers can be deceiving. The number isn’t as important as the selection, which, sadly, disappoints at Ovi Store. Nokia needs to cover basic applications, whether by wooing the right developers or doing the work for them. Facebook isn’t in the Ovi Store, for example, nor is there MySpace. My daughter’s N79 came with Facebook installed. But shouldn’t there be an updated application available in Ovi Store, particularly with Nokia touting social networking as a key benefit of the soon-to-be-released N97?

Earth to Nokia. We have failure to lunch. Ovi Store application selection misses way, way too much compared to Apple’s App Store. Where are your Symbian developers hiding, Nokia? As a cell phone manufacturer, Nokia has breadth—as in sheer number of devices, install base and quarterly handset shipments—whereas Apple has depth, as in number of available applications.

More importantly, Nokia cedes too much control to wireless carriers. According to Nokia’s press announcement, the Ovi Store client “supports operator billing in Australia, Germany, Ireland, Italy, Russia, Singapore, Spain and the United Kingdom….AT&T plans to make Ovi Store available to its customers in the United States later this year.”

That’s supposed to be a good thing? If Nokia’s business is only about selling handsets, the answer is yes. But if Nokia wants something more—building out the next-generation computing platform—the answer is absolutely no. Right now, Apple has got the right strategy with App Store. Ovi Store is off to a disappointing debut.

What Apple is doing right:

  • Treats iPhone and iPod touch together with App Store as a computing platform
  • Controls software updates, rather than letting carriers do so
  • Provides a single iPhone OS for both devices
  • Handles application billing, not carriers

Billing is going to be a big deal after Apple releases iPhone OS 3.0. Developers will have the ability to collect fees within the applications, something Apple couldn’t easily do, if at all, with carriers controlling billing. The developer benefits are huge. Developers can better sell applications on subscription basis or collect micropapyments for extras, such as additional playing levels to games. All successful platforms share at least one characteristic in common: Third parties make lots of money. Apple clearly understands this tenant better than Nokia.

I don’t see in Ovi Store the expected application platform approach—and that’s a bigger problem than number of applications. Nokia’s problems:

  • There are too many handsets with too many different capabilities for there to be a single, defining hardware and software platform
  • Nokia shares control of software updates with carriers, which fragments the base platform across different handsets
  • Symbian OS is further fragmented by number of editions (e.g., S60 3rd Edition Feature Pack 1; 5th Edition)
  • Nokia shares the aforementioned control over App Store billing with carriers; developers benefit how?

That’s not to say Nokia ignores these problems. It’s commendable that Ovi Store offers up applications specific to the handset, the idea being to prevent people from buying stuff incompatible with their device.

As for the actual experience, I found Ovi Store easy enough to use either on a handset or PC and Web browser. Applications are easily found and installed, although most paid ones look pricey compared to App Store. On my N96, Nokia demands extra clicks to get at Ovi Store applications. On iPhone, apps are available from the home screen. The N96 and XpressMusic require clicking through to the “Applications” folder.

Is that a worse use experience? That depends: Do you prefer the control of a stick shift or the ease of an automatic transmission? iPhone is the automatic. The smartphone lays out apps on the home screen, applications use a similar motif and Apple controls the overall look and feel of the user interface. By comparison, Nokia gives the user much more ability to customize the UI’s look, feel and even location of stuff. I’m comfortable driving a stick shift.

Applications also behave somewhat differently depending on the Symbian version. For example, the N96 runs S60 3rd Edition FP2 and the 5800 XpressMusic 5th Edition. The Associated Press application exposes more features on the 5th Edition device, including Twitter and del.iciou.us social bookmarking.

I find the store experience satisfying enough. Nokia has done a good job in terms of integration and presentation. But as a platform, Nokia needs to do better, and anything less isn’t good enough. There is a platform war starting, and the winner(s) will control the next-generation computing platform. Apple has got a good start, in terms of device usability and actual applications. Nokia has huge global reach, which is either going to be basis for further platform expansion or territory for Apple to invade.