What’s It Like to Develop Apps for Nokia Phones?

Nokia (s nok) often touts its massive worldwide presence as a key competitive advantage in the handset market, but what does that mean for developers? Without a solid storefront experience, support from Nokia and efficient programming tools, a global brand alone won’t sell mobile apps. I spent time chatting with several third-party developers to get their thoughts on Nokia’s Ovi store, the Qt platform and Nokia’s developer support. Overall, developers are pleased that Nokia is reducing fragmentation, expanding carrier billing and providing personal support, yet in the fast-paced world of mobile apps, they’re looking for faster software approvals.

While I didn’t expect any app developers here to bash Nokia at this event, I was surprised by the both the amount of overwhelmingly positive comments and a few candid criticisms. Rani Cohen, CEO and founder of TuneWiki, has enjoyed over a million downloads of his app on the Ovi Store and said that Nokia supports his efforts like no other competitor. “We have an actual Nokia person working with us, which we don’t find on other platforms. They help us locally target advertising, giving us huge support for revenue streams we couldn’t uncover in our own small organization.”

Cohen likes the idea of carrier billing support, which Nokia says is now in place with 91 operators around the world. But the 60-40 revenue split for carrier billed sales compared to a 70-30 share for direct bill sales is a detriment for TuneWiki who wants the 70 percent developer share for both types of transaction. Cohen said, “The extra 10 percent makes a huge impact for us due to royalty payments.” Cohen’s concern makes sense for his product as TuneWiki, an app that provides synchronized lyrics to music, pays licensing fees to the music industry, which cuts into profit margins. Unfortunately, the carriers aren’t willing to modify the revenue split in favor of developers, even if Nokia is.

Turning the conversation to Qt, the cross-platform framework that Nokia acquired by purchasing Trolltech in 2008, I asked if the efficiency gains found in the new platform are as good as Nokia says. A resounding yes was the answer from the half-dozen developers I spoke with. Bob Rosin from Qik, the video sharing app, said, “Using Qt has cut our development time in half, because we can build one UI in Qt and target both Symbian^3 as well as MeeGo.” Pixlepipe CEO Brett Butterfield concurs, “Our Send and Share app was our first Symbian app. Creating the UI was painful, as every button had to be hand-created. Qt removes this problem and makes the UI much richer. Plus, the interface designed with Qt can leverage Symbian code.”

The few complaints voiced by developers centered around the Ovi store, which is still maturing. A common theme centered around a faster turnaround time for app review, so developers can iterate more often. Another opportunity lies in application analytics, but Nokia’s recent purchase of Motally should address that over time. Rosin told me that his team codes the Qik application to provide specific feedback for performance improvements and better understanding of how customers use the app.

As far as Nokia’s global presence and carrier billing efforts, they only help if developers take advantage of them. Scott Jensen, head of product marketing for Nokia’s Ovi efforts, quoted an average sales increase ranging from 18 to 22 percent when developers make their app available in a local language. I asked Rosin if Qik sales were more than double in carrier-billing markets and he replied, “They’re significantly higher than that,” although he wouldn’t provide a specific number.

Most important to me was how the developers compare their experience developing for Nokia devices vs for iOS (s aapl), Android (s goog) and other platforms. “Had you asked me a year ago, I would have had a long list of issues, but the Ovi Store has caught up,” Butterfield said. All the developers appreciate the lack of fragmentation brought by the new Symbian^3 platform, an issue that Android has yet to overcome due to various OS versions and hacked ROMs in the wild.

It’s almost a challenge for me to believe the many positives I heard, simply because Nokia and Ovi aren’t strong brands in the U.S. Looking from the perspective of developers that market their wares in 190 countries, however, provides a totally different picture. I’m curious to hear from everyday Nokia users though: Happy developers should foster happier Nokia customers due to richer, compelling apps that are easy to buy.

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