Symbian Update Shows Nokia’s Challenge: Slow Progress

Nokia (s nok) today released a software update for its newest Symbian handsets, noting “numerous tweaks and fixes” and most of the enhanced features under the hood improvements. The flagship N8, along with the new Symbian operating system arrived back in late September, along with the expectation of firmware enhancements in January. Delivery of the update a few days into February isn’t a big deal, but the lack of substance to this update illustrates a major challenge Nokia faces: It continues to move as if the year is 2001, not 2011.

The two most visible parts of Software Update 1.1 include the ability to accept meeting requests directly from email invitations and map integration with email invites to show meeting locations. The Nokia Conversations blog also mentions newly included games and an updated version of the Quick Office document editor software.

I no longer have my Nokia N8 review unit to get the update and test it, but even if I did, I couldn’t get it today. Even though the company is touting the availability of the new software today, it’s really only available now for one of the three devices: the C-7. An update to the Nokia Communications blog post clarifies availability with this statement:

The standard, non-customised version of the software is available from today for the Nokia C7. The software versions for the Nokia N8 and C6-01 will be available early next week. Country (SIM-free) and operator-specific variants will follow soon.

This illustrates a second issue: The more handset models one company has to manage, the more challenging it becomes to support them all from a software standpoint. Granted, the Google (s goog) Android ecosystem mirrors this same problem because numerous handset makers offer different hardware variants, each of which supports different Android features and versions. But unlike Google, Nokia owns its ecosystem, just as Apple (s aapl) does; both make the hardware, the operating system and control the application storefront of their respective platforms. Yet one of these two is managing the overall process well, and one isn’t.

I’m sure Symbian handset owners will be happy to see this new firmware when it becomes available for their device. Indeed, the All About Symbian blog points out improved scrolling performance and landscape support for the dialer application among some of the changes. But when will the Symbian platform be rid of the old S60 browser? Where is the QWERTY keyboard in portrait mode? Why does the text box input method control the entire screen with text entry, hiding what the user was viewing with a very inelegant method?

It’s time to bring the “modern” Symbian platform up to date with these and other features, not be touting the ability to accept a meeting invitation from an email. It could well be that this firmware update — four months after the official N8 launch and 10 months after the platform’s introduction — is laying the groundwork for vastly improved functionality in the near future.

I’ll grant Nokia that, but there’s a recurring pattern here: It seems Nokia is always going take major steps forward with the next update, and rarely with the current one. I’m not sure this pace of progress bodes well for Nokia’s MeeGo plans either; if the first MeeGo devices arrive with gaps that will later be plugged by firmware updates, the new platform isn’t going to save the company from declining profits and market share.

I suspect that’s why Nokia’s CEO, Stephen Elop, said on Nokia’s most recent investor call, “Nokia faces some significant challenges in our competitiveness and our execution. In short, the industry changed, and now it’s time for Nokia to change faster.” That’s certainly the right message, but how long will it take to trickle down from the top?

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