On a recommendation from The Mobile Fanatics I listened to an audio recording of a talk on mobile design given by Peter Skillman, one of the architects of Palm HP’s WebOS and the newly-anointed VP of MeeGo User Experiences and Services at Nokia.
Listening to him speak really drove home the sea change that is happening at Nokia. And while such changes will surely have a positive impact on Nokia’s stock price (almost anything would at this point, really) this particular presentation left me feeling just a bit uneasy.
Though clearly a talk about software and user experience, I got the sense that Mr. Skillman doesn’t really see hardware as a priority in mobile design. Consider this quote:
Design is just 5% of a world class product and experience. Marketing, sales, distribution, [and] procurement is what makes up the other 95%.
And also his tangent about counterfeiters being able to reverse engineer any handset on the market in about eight hours. Presumably the lesson here is that the costs of delivering “reasonable hardware” have come way down, but the unspoken message I get is that hardware doesn’t matter. I say it does.
My first-ever GSM phone was a Nokia device, a 5190. What I loved even more than the intuitive UI (pioneered by Nokia, by the way) were the Xpress-On covers. By making the handset’s shell replaceable there was no need to buy a case. But there was a fantastic cottage industry for Xpress-On cover-makers — I know, because I bought a lot of them!
And when you pried off a cover on this particular model you’d be treated to a little easter egg: the internal cover on the ear piece was in the shape of a happy face, as seen in the photo above. Completely pointless, I know… except that it gave one the sense that the people who made this handset really cared about it.
My next Nokia was an antenna-less 3390, my first with a vibrate function. Not a lot of people knew this, but if the phone was placed upright on a flat surface like a table or floor you could call it and get it to “dance” — the vibration would make it pivot slightly around on its centre axis, but wasn’t strong enough to knock it over. I don’t think this delicate balancing act was an accident; I think engineers actually put some thought into this, knowing full well their efforts would go largely unrewarded.
And the company’s hardware and physical interface innovations continued, from the “gull-wing” split-qwerty on the 6800 series to the bizarro keypads on the 3650 & 7610 to flat-out camcorder mimicry on the N90.
Keep it coming, Nokia.
Though maybe not so wildly ambitious as in days gone by, innovation in hardware design is still alive and well in Espoo — except for the low-res video capture and (possibly) low-rent OS my favourite of the moment is the X3 Touch and Type. Yet the first few minutes of Mr. Skillman’s has him spending less time talking about hardware than the box that said hardware ships in.
I certainly don’t think that Nokia’s superior camera components and other high-quality materials are going away anytime soon; I just want to make sure that future handsets aren’t all monoblock slabs made from the cheapest available outsourced components, owing more to Apple’s iPhone than the company’s own rich history of hardware innovation.