Nokia has spent four years working on building an application distribution system, attracting millions of developers eager to sell to the hundreds of millions of Nokia phone users around the world.
But today few Nokia phone users actually download applications. It took Apple about a year to craft a system that its 15 million iPhone customers use to download applications at a far more frequent rate. According to research from ComScore, 59.2 percent of iPhone users have downloaded apps, a much higher percentage than among average mobile users.
With its soon-to-launch Ovi store, Nokia hopes it has addressed the problems that have held it back in the past.
"When we started doing this, the state of the art was selling a photo of a cat," said George Linardos, vice president of Nokia Services, during a lunch meeting at the CTIA conference in Las Vegas on Thursday. Four years ago when Nokia started promoting the idea of downloading applications to phones, the most sophisticated option was adding photos.
Nokia progressed over the years, but in a disjointed fashion. About a year ago, it had several "first-generation" application services and none of them were linked, he said. A user could open the Download service folder on their phone and then navigate through different folder categories to find applications. Or the user could visit the Mosh Web site, which offered user-generated applications. The phone customer could also open the WidSets application to look for available widgets. "And by the way, there was a different user name and password for each," said Linardos.
About a year ago -- prior to the launch of the iPhone App Store, he says -- Nokia decided to look at the problems with its current systems. "It was obvious we needed just one store," he said.
The Ovi store, expected to open in May, is designed to take the best of the past offerings and add some new capabilities that Nokia hopes will give it a leg up over competitors. It is also designed to take the best ideas from other successful stores.
Apple's App Store is "a very user-friendly experience with a well-integrated buying process and a valuable business model for developers. It's a nice formula for Apple. We're applying the same principles to our hundreds of millions of devices," Linardos said.
One of the main differences with how the Ovi store works is the way it aims to solve possibly the biggest problem in the competitive stores: discoverability. The App Store, for example, ranks applications by number of downloads, and because there are tens of thousands of apps in the store, users focus on those top applications, ignoring the rest.
Nokia hopes to make it easier for users to find applications by automatically placing applications at the top of the list that its "relevancy engine" thinks the individual user will like. The engine will use parameters set by the user and combine them with data like location and applications that the user's friends liked.
By the end of the year Nokia plans to have set up an auction system where application developers can pay to place their application in a showcase spot at the top of the store. They'll be able to set parameters that will display the application only in specified countries or only when a user is searching for travel guides, for example.
Eventually, Nokia wants to share with developers all of the same information that it gathers about application downloads, such as what countries users live in and what phones they are using.
The next version of the Ovi store will let users access their library of downloads from another phone. That means if users buy a new phone, they can log into their library from the new phone, automatically see which of their applications will work on the new phone and then download the apps.
The device-maker is taking the middle road when it comes to what kinds of applications will be available in the store. Applications will go through a quality assurance process and a moderation process that looks for obvious problems like porn or hate content. While Linardos said that Nokia won't forbid an application because it may compete with a Nokia offering, he did say that it may bar apps for other reasons. For example, if a music application is technically legal but is opposed by the record companies, with whom Nokia has partnerships for its own music service, Nokia will forbid the app to protect its partners, he said.
It is also changing the process developers use to create and submit applications to the store, hoping to make it easier and more attractive for them to target the hundreds of millions of Nokia phone users around the world.
At the lunch meeting, companies including Qik, Kinoma and the Associated Press said that they have been pleased with the attention and resources that Nokia has offered them as they developed their applications.
The AP, which has already launched an application for the iPhone and RIM, and is also working with Windows Mobile and Google's Android on new applications, said it appreciated the flexibility of building on the Nokia platform. Nokia developers can choose from platforms including widgets and the Java runtime to build their applications, said Benjamin Mosse, director of mobile products for the AP. "For us, a widget is sufficient," he said. That meant that it took about five weeks to build the application for the Nokia platform, compared to "months and months" of coding required to write the iPhone application, he said.
But other developers wonder if Nokia is just too late with the updates. "A lot of developers think Symbian is showing its age," said Jason Devitt, president and CEO of SkyDeck, a company that stores texts, voicemails and other phone data to the Web. "Some developers say they'd be well-served by tearing it up and starting over or buying Palm." Nokia's smartphones run the Symbian operating system.