Wanna Be My Friendster?

Wanna Be My Friendster?
Anywhere, Anytime, Any Phone

Max Steele | 28 Feb 2006 11:03
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If the team from Sega.com had more time to work on the community features before the N-Gage launched, N-Gage Arena might have matched the success of X-Box Live. They are similar platforms: Both are full-featured on-device online services with alerts, tournaments, game rankings, chat, message boards and play-matching - all the features that transform a hardware platform into a community. Interestingly, both are descended from the original Sega.com concept, architecture, features and policies. (Both the head of X-Box and its director of marketing came from the Sega family of companies.) But instead, N-Gage was now in danger and sinking fast.

In January 2005, Nokia handed the reins of its games unit to Gerard Wiener, the former COO of Sega.com. No stranger to tough battles, the Harvard-educated lawyer turned operations wizard had been the frontline commander during the two-year restructuring of Sega.com and head of Nokia Network Games Solution Group since the acquisition.

As Wiener jumped in to stabilize the Nokia games business, he reportedly stepped on some toes. He started by shifting focus away from North America and Europe. Instead, Wiener's games division sold handsets in China, Thailand and India in droves - over a million in 12 months, which significantly beat the prior year's total sales and exceeded all internal and external targets, insiders confirm. Publicly, Nokia is stating 2.4 million N-Gage handsets are in the field.

At the same time he pushed for increasing worldwide device sales, Wiener and the former Sega.com team were busy changing Nokia's games unit's entire business model. At E3 2005, Wiener announced a new strategy for Nokia's game unit: N- Gage would move from a hardware device to a software platform operating on the family of Series 60 (Symbian) smartphones. At the same time, SNAP Mobile, a new, lighter-weight version of the proven Sega.com technology, would function as a software platform for connected gaming on mass market Java phones. Because both platforms offer connectivity for mobile gaming by plugging into the N-Gage Arena, the result is a connected mobile gaming community spanning a vast number of handsets worldwide.

The shift to a software-based strategy addresses needs in the mobile gaming space in a way never before brought to the market. Nokia plans to sell 25 million smartphones in the next 12 months, which means they will have a huge installed base of game-capable devices. Countless millions more can be connected via the Java-based SNAP Mobile. If every Nokia phone has a community launcher application that connects users to games, music, other entertainment and to each other, we are looking at a massively important development. In other words, Nokia's games strategy suddenly has real backbone and potential.

To Be, or Not To Be
The real test for Nokia is whether it can follow through on its strategy. Even as I researched this article, rumors circulated that Wiener is moving to a position outside of games. Why this would occur is unclear. Wiener himself would not comment, but other sources indicated he is slated for a new strategic position not directly involved in the games business. That in itself is a cause for concern. Nokia can ill afford to lose the momentum he started.

There are some promising signs, such as rumors of talks with major third-party publishers and potential partnerships with Sun to promote the Java-based SNAP Mobile, but without some continuity at the helm, it's easy to be worried about Nokia's ability to stay on target. A recent embarrassing announcement by a high-ranking Nokia executive rekindled rumors of the demise of Nokia gaming and perhaps highlighted Nokia's own confusion on gaming without Wiener to guide them.

Clearly, Nokia came a long way in the past year. Let's hope those labors were not in vain. As they say, the jury is still out.

Max Steele is an enigma wrapped inside a riddle. When not actively being mysterious, he passes his time manipulating time and space to fit his plans for world domination.

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