Nokia’s Design for the Future: Focus on What Works

There’s been a crazy fog of speculation surrounding my previous employer for the past few years, and I’ll admit I’m guilty of contributing.  Many of Nokia’s moves during that time have been unusual, counterproductive and even downright bewildering… so it’s hard to blame anyone for wondering what the heck platform-torching CEO Stephen Elop has really got in mind.

Nokia has always been a leader in hardware.  That’s not even open to debate.  Their serious failures have been, increasingly of late, in softer areas.  Operating systems.   User experience.  Marketing.  In no time Nokia’s failure to execute on iPhone-driven paradigms caused it to fall from leader to follower to company-with-a-questionable-future.

No need to rehash any more history, though, right?  Let’s talk about the company’s future… and why my pessimism started to evaporate tonight. 

Many people were impressed with the industrial aesthetics of the N8.  Many more were floored by the uber-sexy N9.  If I were to forget everything I know about the company, step back and look at their recent hardware design trends objectively, I’d say Nokia has decided to become the Ferrari of phone makers.  The N9 alone is that good-looking.

And do I need to remind readers of their prowess with engines?  Other than some embarrassing lapses with memory and CPU power, Nokia is the undisputed king of cell phone aspects like cameras, antennas and power management.

For a brief period, though, none of that mattered so much.  Apple introduced a device that in many ways was technically inferior to competitor’s products and yet still managed to take the world by storm and become the smartphone benchmark.  They showed that, as cell phones grew in power and complexity to become mobile computers, usability became the utmost selling point for users often befuddled by a vast array of features.

Thanks to a strict adherence to the singular vision of Steve Jobs, Apple has managed to increase the perception among consumers that they are the company to care about.  Even as the Android ecosystem grows to dominate (overtaking Nokia’s Symbian), phones running the quasi-open operating system are always measured against iPhone.

But here’s the funny thing about software: it’s fairly simple to replicate someone else’s features without stepping on their patents.  As Nokia’s Swipe for screen flipping shows, there’s more than one way to engage a touchscreen.  I do expect more costly battles over gestures and other aspects of user experience (UX), but I expect most of them to be lost or tossed.  Courts overloaded with these lawsuits are going to push back.  Software patents have actually been working against the very principles that patents were originally designed to secure, and that can’t persist forever.

It’s no secret to readers of this blog that I’m a big fan of the Maemo and MeeGo operating systems.  I’m even relying completely on a not-for-resale Nokia N950 lately (running the hybrid MeeGo 1.2 Harmattan OS) for cell phone use.  But again, I’m setting that aside and taking an objective tack here in analyzing Nokia’s business moves.  While agreeing to adopt Microsoft’s Windows Phone 7 for all smartphone use may make Nokia look like a whipped OEM, if they can outperform competitors in product design and reliability they might just have a winning combo.

Remember the hypercool Nokia Morph concept?  Tell me you don’t want one of these babies to one day be real:

In the slightly less-exciting present, Reviews for Mango (the current pre-release build of Windows Phone 7) consistently identify it as a serious iOS and Android threat.  As loathe as some may be to consider it, the user experience playing field is leveling.  Once all smartphones have equal access to a competent operating system and user interface layer, the focus reverts back to hardware… and therein lies Nokia’s clear advantage.

It was an interesting article in today’s Wall Street Journal [1] that modulated me back into more positive thoughts on Nokia’s prospects.  I’m particularly intrigued by one specific section:

Microsoft’s Windows Phone Mango is a modern graphic user interface that requires fewer clicks to operate than the folder-based iPhone platform and the Android.

Mr. [Marko] Ahtisaari says today’s touch-screen phones are inappropriately immersive, and that he would like to design in a way that allows users to keep their heads up again.

“When you look around at a restaurant in Helsinki, you’ll see couples having their heads down instead of having eye contact and being aware of the environment they’re in,” he says.

“Designing for true mobility…makes it easier for people to have more eye contact and be aware of their environment, and is an example of what people would not explicitly ask for but love when they get it,” Mr. Ahtisaari says.

Who can argue with that?

Well, obviously some will.  IT World insists iPhone 5 will be a significant threat. Apple has done a decent job keeping this one under wraps, so who knows how much of Marko Ahtisaari’s pondering it will or won’t incorporate?

It’s still too early to write Nokia off as a contender or be completely certain of a turnaround… but I’m even more convinced now that they still do have the pieces to pull it off.  Question remains: do they have the players?

Stephen Elop and staff may just surprise everyone.

[1] Very sorry, the WSJ article requires an account.  If someone has a free link, let me know!


16 responses to “Nokia’s Design for the Future: Focus on What Works

  1. Not questioning writer motivations to stay objective, I think it’s wishful thinking, mostly 😉

  2. Pingback: Randall Arnold: Nokia’s Design for the Future: Focus on What Works | MeeGo

  3. I still wonder if it is really needed to bet the whole company on only a single horse.
    Samsung is currently driving a 3 Smartphone system strategy and compensate the loss in the one with the benefit from the other. And they are lately very successful.

  4. @Helmuth – I hear people saying that now, but when Nokia had Symbian and MeeGo, and then launched their Booklet, people said the exact same thing, but as a negative. “How can one company expect to properly manage and support so many different operating systems?” The fact is, the market has proven that it’s possible to realize success with a single OS (Apple) or with multiple (HTC). The choice of number of platforms to support is not material to the realization of success.

    What’s been proven time and time again is that Nokia as a company should be kept far, far away from software in general. For support:

    1. The handling of Symbian pretty much since Day 1. They botched that at every opportunity, with few ‘wins’.
    2. The handling of Maemo/Meego pretty much since Day 1. This is in reverse of Symbian. Nokia wasn’t able to see clearly enough to give Maemo/Meego proper resources/recognition, and as a result, it’s a non-starter in the industry (similar to webOS – superior in many ways, but DOA in practice due to its parent company’s choices)
    3. Even ‘official’ software from Nokia – pretty much anything that was ever called ‘Ovi’ was embarassing. The current ‘Nokia Social’ app is horrendous. The list goes on. It’s a challenge to find a software solution that Nokia hasn’t screwed up entirely.

    I agree with Randy that Nokia’s hardware prowess is pretty much unmatched (don’t dispute this with specifics – look at the overall hardware production – no one beats them). I also firmly believe that Windows Phone has a very promising future.

    Unfortunately, there are two caveats to that – 1. it’s believed that Nokia will hire Compal to produce their first round of WP devices (thus, they won’t be ‘Nokia’ hardware) and 2. I’m not sure Microsoft can successfully tell Nokia to keep their grimy hands OUT OF THE SOFTWARE.

    Just my $0.02. 😉

    • The only software solution that I’ve seen branded Nokia that wasn’t screwed up and was just down right awesome was *drumroll please*

      Nokia Bubbles for S^3! I don’t know its state now, but it was such a SIMPLE little application that took over your standby screen that had a powerful impact on how I used the trial N8 I received!

      But aside from that? Yeah..nothing “software” wise that Nokia has had their hands in really shines brightly unfortunately.

  5. Pingback: O Nokia, where art thou? | | Android

  6. Well, although I hope for the sake of Nokia (mainly all the people working there, but partially the continuation of some degree of Nokia development of Qt and the like) that they’re successful, but once I manage to somehow get my hands on an N9 (I would’ve preferred an N950…) that’ll be the last Nokia product I’ll likely ever buy. WP7 just doesn’t interest me; ironically, for my own use, Maemo/MeeGo has the same kind of integration with my desktop computer usage as iOS has for the Apple world. Windows Phone just isn’t for me.

    Now, if in some magical dream future Nokia sold versions of their phones with unlocked bootloaders and open source drivers, then said “have at it, hardcore Linux folks” . . . but even before all this, much of the core of Maemo devices were closed-source (MeeGo only works on the N900 thanks to internal Nokia folks under NDAs, right?). With Elop having said they won’t put out any more MeeGo products regardless of how well the N9 does (and isn’t that an insane statement from the CEO of a company that’s trying to compete in a cutthroat market?), if/when the N9 makes it to Canada it’ll be a bittersweet culmination of years of Nokia devices. Alas.

    I suppose you can’t make an omelette without breaking a few eggs, and you can’t jump off a burning platform without leaving some folks behind. And I’m one of those folks.

  7. I’d also like to mention, although there have been some good reviews of the latest version of WP7, sales of WP7 devices have been consistently nonexistent. Hell, in its last quarter of real competitiveness (I believe this was Q4 of last year), worldwide the N8 outsold all WP7 devices combined.

    Now, the mobile market changes rapidly, and with all the other potential competitors dropping out of the race voluntarily (other than RIM, who seems determined to simply lose on their own merits) maybe there is room for WP7. But so far, Microsoft is making more money per quarter on Android patent shakedowns than WP7 licenses, and although they have enough cash and determination to keep WP7 in the game for now, that doesn’t at all guarantee they’ll gain any serious market share while WP7 zombies along.

    Of course, who am I to talk about market share, I’m writing this from an Linux desktop 😉

  8. I personally see Nokia in a great position all around. For the one who said Samsung is running three os’s is wrong. Nokia can pull this off and I see MeeGo as the future os of choice. Symbian won’t die but will grow back to being prosperous and windows will help them over the current situation they are facing now. Apple will soon start to fall cause eventually people will get tired of the same boring ui since 2007

  9. The open source direction that Nokia initially had was good long term planning (re: patents) and more democractic (if you will) overall. It was a well thought out strategy, but markets operate on a much shorter and far less holistic frame than the one that the Symbian strategy seemed to be sited in. It’s reminiscent of Nokia’s overly long term anticipation of the death of clamshells, which then had a brief resurgence that they missed, contributing to their loss of US market share at the time which now persists.

    I agree that WP7 was not a terrible strategy. It just looks bad in hindsight, given Meego’s slickness on N9 so far – but the retrospectoscope is an amazing thing. We shouldn’t forget how terrible things looked for Nokia at the time that Elop took over. He may be leading Nokia in a direction that we don’t agree with, but at least he’s leading and has a plan rather than the foundering and flip-flopping that Nokia seemed to demonstrate to outsiders before him. And as a generic end user, I find WP7 pretty slick. (I have a bias for fluid UI though. And for the record I’ve pre-ordered an N9 in Australia.)

  10. I currently own the N900 and I really can agree with one of the previous posters that they seem to have only made a half hearted effort at developing Maemo5…. hell i had never even heard about Maemo before I got this phone which means they couldn’t have really been pushing the OS in the first place. otherwise it would have become well know if coupled together with awesome hardware.

    The proposed combination of efforts between Moblin and Maemo to make MeeGo was GREAT. And that was fairly recent. It looked extremely promising and sexy in the early stages….. and look at how it turned out in the N9! It seems to be an excellent OS…. and it’s open source!!

    Ultimately, I think its all about the money. It seems that they only want to make hallf hearted attempts at really developing the OS… Plus why put that effort into developing something free that people can develop themselves without them getting anything in return. Just pay Bill some change to develop, stick it in the price and sell. No real effort on their part.

    Now I have an N900 that’s like the Axim X30 of it’s time….. awesome piece of hardware, but you’re not going to be updated to the recent OS (yes, I am pessimistic enough to expect this of the N900)…. No serious hardware details released for a full development, so we’re kind of stuck here.

    I don’t know what will happen with nokia, i just hope they change their game plan in time for the N1000

  11. “Once all smartphones have equal access to a competent operating system and user interface layer, the focus reverts back to hardware… and therein lies Nokia’s clear advantage.”

    You couldn’t be more wrong.
    What will count is the apps ecosystem. And on that point, iOS is first, Android is closing the gap fast, and Windows 7 is nowhere to be seen.

    • Sorry, I’m not wrong at all; you’re ignoring the context. I didn’t get into ecosystems because that wasn’t the focus of the article. It’s a given that a strong apps ecosystem is necessary for any platform’s success. I agree WP7 currently lacks the depth and breadth of its competitors, but I’m also of the opinion that as long as a reasonable number of compelling apps are available, that might not be a problem.

  12. “I agree that WP7 was not a terrible strategy. It just looks bad in hindsight, given Meego’s slickness on N9 so far – but the retrospectoscope is an amazing thing. We shouldn’t forget how terrible things looked for Nokia at the time that Elop took over.”

    Elop and the people inside Nokia naturally new about the good shape of N9 and Meego when the decision of moving over to Windows Phone was made, so there was no retrospection involved there. The decision also wasn’t based on how the things looked for an outside viewer.

  13. Fremantle -> Harmattan -> Meltemi
    Symbian -> WinPho

  14. Pingback: Nokia’s Design for the Future: Focus on What Works | post404

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