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