Hoping hardware still matters at Nokia.

Cell phone happy face, 10/13/06

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.

Some background.

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.

7 comments:

  1. While you might see a flaw in what he said but it’s overwhelmingly true. How else do you explain Apple getting away with making the exact same phone 4 times? Or HTC churning out clone after clone of the same device? I don’t think that Skillman was trying to say that design isn’t important, it’s simply that design isn’t everything. Take the N8 for example, a beautiful device, comes in a variety in colors (which is rare nowadays), spits in the face of Nokia’s old design language. However, Nokia has done a terrible job of telling people WHY they’d want to buy and use the N8 (besides the 12MP camera), showing off the features that make it stand out, they failed to have healthy distribution at launch and procurement of the device is much harder than devices from other manufacturers (it will shock you how many people buy their phones and ONLY buy their phones from carriers). I think he was dead on here and it’s something that Nokia needs to understand before they continues with the current lay of the land and expect hardware and design alone to sell themselves.

    1. So long as the hardware doesn’t suffer, I’m fine with everything you say.

      This post started out as a lament about globalization finally hitting Nokia, but for clarity I tried to pare it down to a single point. I would just hate to see Nokia turn into a generic handset maker like HTC — or worse, produce hardware that’s actually bad, like the Palm Pre.

      1. I doubt Nokia would dash what separates them from HTC, Samsung, LG, RIM, Apple and Dell so quickly. There will always be various devices of different shapes, sizes, input methods (remember, most of those other companies I mentioned don’t make low-end devices at all).

        You say that like they’ve never produced ANY bad hardware before.

      2. Unless I’m mistaken, surely nothing so cheap and plastic-y on the high-end…?

        Granted, I never tried an N95 until the 8GB model, but that seemed fine. And even though the N96 had a faux-metal trim it still felt better in my hand than the Pre.

    1. You had one?!I was seriously thinking about getting an N93i back in the day but couldn’t afford it. Great design, though — wish Nokia kept that one up…

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