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Dopplr Disappeared Into The Black Hole That Is Nokia: Never To Return?

Perhaps it’s just coincidence that this Jemima Kiss piece about Dopplr was published on the same day that Stephen Elop assumes his new role of Nokia CEO. But the disastrous course of events at Dopplr since they were acquired by the telecom giant does not inspire confidence that the firm is a hotbed of innovation:

Jemima Kiss, The slow death of Dopplr

Founded in Finland early in 2007, Dopplr was the great white, beautiful hope of the UK startup scene; a well-respected design and development team, and a service that imaginatively and stylishly captured the zeitgeist of business, travel and location services.

It published annual travel summaries for users and included their carbon output. It boosted the profile of money-spinning conferences. And – of most interest to potential investors – it attracted a wealthy, technophile and evangelical base of “upscale” business users. Backers included Esther Dyson, Tyler Brule, Joshua Schachter, Lars Hinrichs and Reid Hoffman. So what could go wrong?

In a word: Nokia.

The Finnish mobile manufacturer, which sells more phones than any other company, paid a rumoured $20m (give or take a few million) for the service almost exactly a year ago, with a deal that closed on 28 September, 2009.

Since then, Dopplr has fallen completely out of the web’s view. Its blog has not been updated since two days after the acquisition. While Dopplr was too young to have grown a large user base, the Nokia acquisition could, with some imagination, have given it scale. Instead, comScore shows its monthly unique user numbers falling from 39,000 in September 2009 to 29,000 in July this year.

While the Guardian has been told that Dopplr’s back-end system is still being maintained, its front-of-house appears woefully neglected, with no sign of the much-admired annual travel reports. Even if this was purely a talent acquisition, with the company bought for its staff, why allow the site to wither on the vine?

Dopplr’s design chief Matt Jones had already left, joining Schulze & Webb (reincarnated as Berg) but still tied to Dopplr one day a month as a design advisor. Jones already had close to ties with Nokia as a former director of UX design there. Not only that, chief executive Marko Ahtisaari became senior vice president for design at Nokia, chief tech officer Matt Biddulph and developer Tom Insam both moved to Nokia’s base in Berlin as strategist and developer respectively and are still there, working out lock-in periods.

At the time of the acquisition, people only saw possibility. “I’m guardedly optimistic that Nokia is smart enough to know not screw up a truly elegant service,” wrote Dopplr user Chad in response to the news. Duncan Semple added: “I just hope the service won’t get neglected or changed too much to fit with Nokia’s other services.” Trickles of comments this year have variously asked if anyone is still listening — and, echoing in an empty blog, talked of transferring to rival service TripIt.

Despite numerous requests over a number of weeks for comment about its plans for Dopplr, Nokia has not responded.

I think Dopplr had done a bunch of things right, but had made some serious gaffes as well, both in design and business orientation.

Talking to Marco Artisaari a few years ago, long before the Nokia acquisition, I wondered why the company wasn’t getting into managing travel related information — like hotel reservations and airplane travel, frequent flyer accounts, and the like — which TripIt has done so well, now. But he wanted to remain focused on the social interaction side of things.

But, as I pointed out, Dopplr wouldn’t let me even stipulate the time that I was planning to arrive in, say, Paris on 23 September, or what airline I was on. So that means I couldn’t use the service to alert a friend who was planning to pick me up at the airport.

And worse: what’s the most obvious social activity when visiting a place where you know you have friends? Setting up a get-together. Dopplr provided next to no good ways to do the obvious: inviting friends to get together, pick a place, set a time, etc.

Instead, Dopplr just dropped innovating. Yes, they added partnerships with various travel services — like Mr & Mrs Smith and Tablet Hotels — but they dropped the ball on the social context surrounding the app.

So, Artisaari sold the company to Nokia, where he had worked before, and he took the job of SVP of Design. I am sure he’s doing good things, like the X3 phone:

But Dopplr has fallen into the strange gravity well of Nokia, like Plazes, Cellity, Plum and other acquisitions.

We’ll have to see if Artisaari and Elop can change things within the behemoth to really innovate in software, like these many companies had been doing before their acquisitions.

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