Nokia’s Troubles Deepen: As Devs Flee Platform, Handset Maker Cuts Forecast

UPDATED: One would think that laying claim to the largest share of the world’s smartphone market would attract the most high-quality mobile software developers, but that doesn’t seem to the case for Nokia (s nok). The Finnish phone giant’s market share stands at 44.3 percent, research firm Gartner’s latest data shows, yet according to a recent Bloomberg piece, programmers appear intent on building apps for smaller, competing platforms.

Update: Nokia Wednesday morning released an amended outlook that further reduces expectations, with anticipated net sales in its Devices and Services division seen “at the lower end of, or slightly below” the prior expected range of 6.7-7.2 billion euros in the second quarter of 2010. Nokia attributes the new forecast to “the competitive environment, particularly at the high-end of the market, and shifts in product mix towards somewhat lower gross margin products.” In other words, Nokia sees its struggle in the thriving market for smartphones and the software they run.

The challenge Nokia has faced and will continue to face can be boiled down to three things:

Negative momentum: Commenters are always quick to remind me of Nokia’s No. 1 position in terms of smartphone market share, and rightly so. But such numbers are a snapshot in time — far more important to developers is momentum. They watch to see how fast or slow a platform is gaining or losing acceptance. In the case of Nokia, there’s been momentum over the past three years, just not the good kind. Our infographic on mobile platform share from 2007-2009 highlights the problem — Nokia’s share of the market has waned (as did Microsoft’s (s msft) and general Linux phones) as those of Research In Motion (s rimm) , Apple (s aapl) and Google (s goog) have grown. In other words, developers see negative momentum with Nokia and are more likely to dedicate limited resources to its platform.

Too much choice: Nokia offers more makes and models of phones than any other company. But while customer choice is important, perhaps Nokia has honed this feature to a fault. On the site for Nokia Europe — a region that the company is very strong in — there are seven N-series devices, eight E-series handsets, the unique N900 and a few more smartphones coming soon. It reminds of the current Google Android fragmentation issues, but far worse. The various Nokia smartphones all run Symbian S60 — except for the N900, which runs on Maemo — in no less than four combinations of various editions and feature packs. And then there’s the upcoming Symbian 3 OS for the Nokia N8, which is already drawing early criticism on the software and experience. What platform version should a developer target and for how long should he or she expect compatibility? Nokia’s saving grace could be the Qt cross-platform framework, but I haven’t heard any chatter about mobile developers moving to Qt in significant numbers just yet.

Poor store usability: Nokia’s Ovi store is slowly improving, but the experience isn’t up to par with that of Apple’s; even Google’s Android Market is better. A poor in-store experience doesn’t lead to sales, even if the software itself is excellent. Indeed, some developers tell Bloomberg that Nokia’s Ovi store is “clunky,” so I can’t blame such developers for leaning towards a more effective alternative storefront such as that of Apple.

The shame of it all is that Nokia makes some of the best hardware in the world when it comes to smartphones. For example, the N900 is a high-powered handset with full QWERTY keyboard and resistive touchscreen that behaves more like a capacitive display. But the Maemo operating system is geekier than Android, to the point that it initially required users to find and connect to software repositories for programs, just like a traditional Linux computer. And Maemo is going away sooner rather than later — the overall platform is now folded into the MeeGo system that Nokia merged with Intel’s Moblin (s intc), although the open source community still adds to it. Like a few other Nokia experiments, the N900 doesn’t have much of a future when compared to mainstream smartphones that are standardized on a single operating system.

Given the above three points, it’s understandable why longtime Nokia developers are moving on to greener pastures. Alan Masarek, CEO of Quickoffice, enjoys the fact that his company’s product ships on all Nokia Symbian phones, but he looked into Android about 18 months ago and is glad he did. Masarek tells Bloomberg: “The numbers on Android are very ascendant right now. We’re on all these devices that just started shipping in meaningful volumes the last two quarters.”

If Nokia can woo developers by honing its product platform and line, it can still reverse that momentum. And maybe then it can stave off a further rise in the smartphone market share of Apple and Google.

Related research report from GigaOM Pro (sub req’d):

The App Developer’s Guide to Choosing a Mobile Platform

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