Nokia lays groundwork for 2010 with new Ovi and S60 tools

by Caroline Gabriel

Last week’s Nokia World event was, as expected, heavily focused on the Finnish giant’s software and services ambitions, despite the appearance of some keynote devices like the Booklet 3G.

The highlight of the web services discussion was ‘social location’ and an increasingly powerful position for Facebook, but it will be developer tools that make a differentiated mobile web offering for Nokia, not apps that everybody is supporting. It announced new tools for its Ovi web platform, and hinted at further acquisitions of innovative start ups to add distinctive features to its offering.

Of course, its software message was somewhat hampered by the early stage at which its key operating systems, the new open Symbian and Linux-based Maemo, currently are. These two platforms will underpin the Nokia mobile web push, but both will only be fully fledged in time for next year’s Nokia World, and have many milestones to reach before then – so the handset leader was limited in what it could say about them, beyond the usual visionary statements. And it will be these two OS’s that really propel Nokia’s challenge for the high end mobile market.

The first open source release of Symbian OS, Symbian^4 with the Nokia/Qt user interface, will be hardened next year, with various interim releases in the meantime, and the hefty task of converting the existing apps and tools base to open processes. Meanwhile, Maemo will be enhanced via the joint development with Intel, which will bring it close to the chipmaker’s Moblin netbook Linux OS, and will incorporate telephony features being created by the two giants.

In the meantime, the existing version of Symbian remains the dominant smartphone OS and the most mature and broadly supported multivendor mobile platform by a long way, even if Android is certainly at the top of the hype curve for 2009. As developers wait for the shift to open source, Nokia did help Series 60 5th Edition with new software developer kits (SDKs) aimed at boosting S60 in the midrange web market, where its real strengths currently lie. An upgraded version of Symbian S60 5th Edition will be rolled out for the Nokia N97 and N97 Mini in October.

In Stuttgart, Nokia announced new SDKs and open APIs, to support easier integration of web content and Ovi services in S60 5th Edition. This goes beyond pure widgets, giving developers greater flexibility to dig into the phone’s functions and create rich apps. One of the flagship examples of how Nokia aims to tie together S60 and Ovi is the Facebook deal, which includes tight integration of the social network in Nokia Messaging. Such capabilities will boost S60’s high end webphone qualities, raising Nokia’s chances of coming up with really revolutionary mobile web devices next year. As InfoSync puts it: “There’s something wrong when you can’t get more out of a smartphone OS than ‘running’ widgets”, a message Nokia has clearly accepted.

Nokia’s is also trying to make it easier for third party developers to create new apps for Ovi. “Our goal is clear, and that is to make it effortless for our partners to create highly appealing, context relevant applications,” said the firm’s EVP of services, Niklas Savander. The first in a series of APIs that will be opened to all-comers are the Ovi Maps Player and Ovi Navigation Player, highlighting one of the key themes of the event, advanced location awareness (a key Nokia strategy since it paid a massive $8.1 billion for Navteq).

And the Ovi SDK is now in beta realease, providing developers with tools for rich web apps that can span both Symbian and Maemo. These apps should start to enter the Ovi Store from early next year – the store now has about 5,500 items, far behind Apple’s 65,000.

Savander was also hinting at new web-oriented acquisitions to come, though nothing on the scale of Navteq. Instead it will be on the look-out for smaller internet and technology firms to differentiate its services and accelerate its move into new apps. “It is likely we will find small technology companies,” he said. “It is acceleration of the implementation of a plan we already we have.”

Having announced its close ties with Nokia via the Lifecasting app earlier in the week, Facebook was back on stage, with its mobile director Henri Moissinac unveiling Facebook Connect for Mobile Web, which aims to extend the social networking leader’s reach across the mobile software ecosystem. Moissinac said the new platform will enable developers to add Facebook social media functionality to any app across any OS so that users of any gadget can share information and updates. Facebook Connect for traditional web apps was unveiled last year and extended to the iPhone earlier this year.

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