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

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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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29 Responses to “What’s It Like to Develop Apps for Nokia Phones?”

  1. whats it like to develope for symbian? it depends entirely what you’re developing, the old ui classes are very cumbersome to use so qt helps a lot with that.

    and if you don’t need to do anything that would require higher capabilities the development is pretty smooth as it doesn’t involve politics, but system plugin etc development is still an excercise in hacking – even though if the official partyline from sf/nokia would be that it should be possible to develope such(the ogg vorbis codec is a good example of this, their symbian multimedia plugin codec actually would work as a ringtone if they just had higher capabilities).

    in general it’s gotten a LOT better in the past 5 years though, but introducing platsec in half-finishedly-thought-up form put it back another 3 years during that. on the plus side you can now develop with just free tools you can get from nokia without much hassle(and gcc is no longer 2.9 hahaha).

    what’s it like _really_ though? well for reasons unknown I’ve spent the past few years working in developing sw for symbian, first as freelancer/indie and later as salaried. during almost that whole time there is a method described in s60 api documents that doesn’t actually work(it was introduced with symbian 7.0s / s60 2.0 ). it would be a really, really handy method for avoiding dumping stuff to filesystem in certain times. I really hope that stuff is fixed on the qt version of that api(haven’t checked yet), but as the result of all these years dealing with certificates, the sis-installer and mmf apis i’m not so sure if they’ve fixed it. also there’s a load of apis that are deemed ‘private’, except in cases when they’re not and they decide to ship them with one sdk and then leave them out of another, or just outright GIVE the apis to another developer while not giving them to another, for no particular reason except who knew who. so within the first year I had to resort to following instructions on the net on how to rebuild a header file from just having a .lib, to get access to some functionality that was essential at the time.

    as an user these issues don’t bother you as you never hear about them unless you go around asking “why there isn’t a program that does x”.

  2. from a developer’s business perspective, one issue is that almost all of currently sold (Nokia) Symbian devices are based on S60 (5.0). Realistically, it will take at least one or two years before devices with Qt pre-installed are common place around the world. So, today when you develop for Nokia, you are still obliged to consider S60 development, and the advanced tools such as in-app analytics or in-app adverts, etc… are out of Symbian comunity reach as they will be available for Qt only in the future. In the meantime, if you target the existing Symbian S60 consumers with your app, you might be interested in InAppTracking, the only in-app analytics tool for Symbian that we launched today (see our site



  3. Interesting article. I am a hobbyist developer and in the process of developing several (free/for fun) apps for Nokia phones currently. I just happen to have a Symbian phone and am writing mostly for my own uses but will release them through Ovi store for other people too.

    Before Qt, I never considered developing apps for my phone simply because it was too difficult. With Qt and regular C++ now fully supported (finally!), I can utilize my programming knowledge from regular desktop apps so it has actually been a good experience so far. Qt is still developing though its already very good. Nokia have been very responsive to bug reports and feature requests I filed and implemented several features I (and many other people) wanted within months.

  4. Symbian (and eventually MeeGo) are “just another platform”. Although there aren’t many OS/platforms today (a few on phones and a few on desktop), developers must leverage multi-platform development tools because any market slice is still money.

    Tired of trying to get up to speed with Eclipse’s EMF, I am now building up my multi-platform development environment with AtomWeaver. This is actually a very generic tool, applying ABSE, a form of model-driven software development, competitor to Eclipse’s EMF. I can build models of platform-independent abstractions to my code, that later get translated into platform-specific code. OK, I have to do it for every platform once, but then I can reuse.

    For now I have to cope with the tool’s limitations, as it has been recently made publicly available. But this is my strategy, and while I consider Nokia/Symbian a “me too” platform, I will continue to support it.

  5. Kevin, thanks for the piece. Glad to see you are taking a more broad perspective of the 190 countries where Nokia developers work and live. There are many reasons we are still very much in the game…one of the biggest is that the new chief is a software guy who has lived Steve Ballmer’s mantra “developers developers developers.”

    If you haven’t seen it, head of Ovi Store Marco Argenti created a blog which spells out the developer improvements in more detail and I invite everyone to have a look.

  6. dominoconsultant

    I used to have a Nokia E90 Communicator which was a great phone. Back then it was THE smartphone. I couldn’t even get it in my country (Australia) I had to import it myself. The biggest downside of it was the $1,000+ pricetag, not the restrictive development environment or the lack of an apps store. Price, just price.

    When it was stolen I replaced it with a Nexus One for $500+. I don’t regret it’s loss now. And I can’t see myself going back to a manufacturer who so consistently over-prices their hardware. I just don’t think they get it.

    Now that Android has a head start with the app-store I just don’t see Nokia being able to overcome the inertia. The one thing that would save them is changing to Android as an OS, but I know they are NOT going to do that.

    • “Now that Android has a head start with the app-store I just don’t see Nokia being able to overcome the inertia.”

      But wasn’t this the exact argument by those last year who said, “Now that the iPhone has a head start with the app store, I just don’t see Android being able to overcome the inertia”? But have you seen recent sales figures?

      Android’s biggest advantage is not its technology – MeeGo’s is clearly better IMHO, though not yet as mature – but that it’s multi-vendor. That, not the size of the app store, is more likely to be Nokia’s biggest challenge IMHO.

      (My son waffled between a Nexus One and a Vibrant, finally choosing the latter, and he’s very fond of it. I still thoroughly enjoy my N900, though. ;-)

      • Exactly. Android is a multi-vendor OS and at this point it can only be beaten by another multi-vendor OS. If Symbian and Meego continue to be used only by Nokia, they will both not stand a chance against Android against Android.

        I think there are only 2 OS’s that can compete with Android in the long term and those are Windows Phone 7 and Meego.But there is one condition – that they get adopted by as many and as powerful companies as the ones adopting Android.

        If there isn’t some kind of unofficial alliance between vendors to use either Windows Phone 7 or Meego for all their devices, then none of them will stop Android.

        The battle at this point is not about which OS is better. It’s about which OS gets the most support from vendors.

      • That would be the case if any of those vendors had made impact on Nokia’s share over the last ten years. They haven’t.

        To put it in context, Apple and RIM (who, by the way, are also the sole vendors of iOS and Blackberry OS respectively) are numbers two and three. Nokia outsells them combined.

  7. Wilhelm Reuch

    As a OSX/iOS developer the Nokia SDK is interesting as there is some common ground (c/c++). Also having worked with Qt in the past it provides a much nicer object model than native C++, much like Objective-C.

    The downer is that the Nokia SDK seems Windows-only while iOS developers use mac. If Nokia would fix this they could target iOS developrs.

    Also remember there is a body of Qt developers already out there as the KDE for Linux is Qt based like most software written for KDE.

  8. Hamranhansenhansen

    Nokia doesn’t have anything to tempt me away from my iPhone, iPad, MacBook Pro, and MacBook Air. However, I have always thought Nokia is in a much better position than Android. They’re almost 10 times more profitable than Android, they have much better hardware, and Nokia has control of its own destiny, they can fix their own problems. If Nokia developers are writing these QT apps in C like iOS developers then that is another advantage over Android’s baby Java apps. I think Android benefited too much from Apple and Silicon Valley coattails, but they have not delivered the iPhone-but-from-Google that the hype promised.

    • I’m with you, exactly. Nokia makes nothing that will tempt me to give up my iPhone, Zune HD or Macbook Pro ( or any iPad owners, their iPads), but hey, the more competition the better for everyone, right?
      I wish Nokia well in their endeavors.

    • If you look at the new Nokia Qt SDK [] it does have a Macintosh version. I haven’t tried it out yet, and there are some limitations (for instance you can only compile for Maemo at the moment) [], but it is clearly a focus for Nokia to support development for Nokia products both from Windows, Linux, and Mac OS X.

  9. @Kertan – You just forgot to mention that you know not what you are talking about.

    The afore mentioned Gravity application is designed, developed and distributed by an individual, Jan Ole Suhr. However, as a responsible person, Jan Ole has a registered legal entity which allows him to operate as a business and have a VAT like any VAT paying entity. He pays taxes to the German government and benefits, with his family, by the benefits the state offers in return. Therefore, although he is an individual developer by any reasonable judging criteria, he never had any problem making business with Nokia and selling apps through Ovi Store.

    There is this weird misconception however that “individuals” cannot be legal entities, that they cannot pay VAT and income tax. Since when individual developer equals tax evasionist?

    Still, apparently without your knowledge, Nokia as long since aligned to the practices promoted by its competitors and “individuals” are now welcomed to the store, where they can also benefit from free signing. There might be a form which, for legacy reasons, asks for a VAT number, but if you give it a try you will find that 0 is a valid VAT.

    For more information, pay a visit to Forum Nokia, Nokia’s developer community website, and browse the Distribute section.

  10. In light of this post Kevin, would like to revisit your previous thoughts on why Nokia is a gonner in sw and apps and should humbly pledge its allegiance to Android? I just thought that now that app developers for the other 190 countries have had their 2 cents maybe you have changed your mind.

    What says Kevin?

    • Fair question, but to be honest, I’m still trying to absorb everything I heard at Nokia World before I provide any in-depth thoughts. Having said that, I see that developers are happy with the Ovi store changes and Qt. But I also see that these same developers are casting a wide net, i.e.: with iOS, Android and other platforms. That’s to be expected of course – I’d do the same if I were them. And it’s valid point that Nokia developers can sell software in far more countries than they can for Apple or Google devices. That’s likely to change over time, however.

      A short thought: I heard much at Nokia World that says Nokia isn’t giving up by any means and it has a long-term strategy. Is there enough time to wait for that strategy to unfold, is the question I’m grappling with. ;)

      • I agree with your points Kevin. The next year will be critical for Nokia, especially to see the uptake of the latest Symbian smartphones in regions where Nokia is strong – Asia and EMEA. Also, 2012 will be important from the perspective of Meego devices and their impact.

        I feel that Nokia’s performance between now and end of 2012 will speak for itself. In the interim it will be interesting to see how Apple and Android evolve, especially with the coming of Windows Mobile 7 and the efforts that companies like Samsung and HTC will devote to Windows devices taking resources away from Android.

        A very interesting and exciting 2 yrs ahead of us. :-)

  11. They just forgot to mention that individuals developpers aren’t welcome (VAT still required), that n900 and maemo are completely forgotten, that you can’t depends on any other libs than qt (forgot python qt apps)

  12. As a everyday Nokia user, I’m more impressed at the apps that do more than just add a layer to normal tasks, but enhance them. For example, I like the Gravity Twitter app because it respects the UI, reduces some of the friction in respect to managing multiple accounts, and is (for the most part) snappy.

    Many apps aren’t like that – though it is getting better.

    The other thing about Symbian/Maemo/MeeGo apps is that you are more likely to see apps from developers that don’t duplicate inherent functionality, but extend it. Especially on the Maemo/MeeGo side, this helps developers better find niches to make products that have a longer following.