Nokia: Innovate On the Inside


Now that I've had a couple days to digest the announcements on Monday, it's time for me to share some disappointment. Let me say that I'm still a Nokia booster. I like the company, I like their phones, and I think the Series 60/Symbian opeating system is awesome. However, even though Monday's announcements were a good sign that Nokia is realizing that they were on the wrong track during the past year, they still need to do a lot more to turn their ship around.

Design and development take time, so I'm sure it's just going to take a little bit before they can change directions and even more before gaining momentum again. What frustrates me is how short a time period it took for Nokia to completely screw up its product line in the first place and how they still may not be getting the core idea of what went wrong. Look at the very first Series 60 phone, the 7650. That phone was incredible. It was innovative, yet stylish and good looking. It was nice to use, it felt good in your hand, had a super-advanced OS and yes it was a 1.0 product and therefore was missing some things like memory card support, but it was just done right. Everyone who saw that phone wanted it - whether they were phone afficianados or not.

Since then, however, Nokia has tried to "differentiate" itself with handset designs. Even though the best selling phones are and have been pretty much plain as hell on the outside, Nokia seemed to insist (and still does) on messing with the handsets' keypads, form factors and doing things differently for difference sake. Why? It's incredibly obvious the market likes iPod-like simplicity, not 7700-like wackiness. Why is this so hard to grasp? Yet while Nokia was tweaking the hardware design like the keypads, they were leaving the Series 40 software platform relatively unchanged. Another big mistake. While they were launching boring phones with gimmicky keypads and covers like the 3200, along comes the SonyEricsson T610 which is simple, small, black, has a basic keypad, dim screen, yet it has a great looking User Interface with changeable themes and it outsold everything last year. This is a pretty simple lesson to learn, no?

Nokia should have seen this coming. I remember for a year after the 7650 was launched, everyone online wanted a 7650i. They wanted the same thing, yet better. But instead Nokia launched wacky phone after wacky phone targeted at various markets the rest of us can't even begin to understand. It's the marketing and design departments run amok. Even though I loved the 3650 even with its circular keypad, I got no end of grief for it. Ten seconds with a focus group could've told you it should've never been launched. How well done was the 7650? Well, two years later, there are companies just coming out with the slide-model now (one of them is even a S60 phone as well). Not only did Nokia have its own unique form of the popular flip phone, they had an advanced smart phone OS to put into it as well. I remember thinking at that time that Nokia was going to rule the world. That phone was *so* great. But then they just went in the wrong direction completely. More less-powerful Series 40 phones, more "design", more segmentation, yet no innovation at all for the UI. It may be 20-20 hindsight, but all of us on the outside were just watching it happen and shaking our heads. But since Nokia kept their market share, it seemed that they knew what they were doing.

I still have faith in Nokia for one reason, they own the Series 60 platform. On Monday they announced some amazing cutting-edge improvements, including integrated SVG support in the UI. This is awesome. Now Nokia just needs to follow through with the move to this platform, and they need to drop Series 40 all together. Yes, I'm sure the S40 phones are still selling well, and I'm sure that form factor is going to be around for a while, but it's not the future. And there's no reason for the Series 40 to really exist anymore. If Nokia can produce cheap N-Gage QDs based on S60, they can produce cheap phones on that platform as well and use those phones to target the market the Series 40 is in now. Besides, S40 phones are already looking *very* old and not keeping up with the SonyEricsson, Motorola or Samsung UIs, let alone the stuff you see on custom Japanese or Korean handsets. That platform needs to go.

I've said this before, and I'll say it again, Nokia needs to push to smart phones now. They can't catch up with the SonyEricsson's of the world on the lower level: If you take the latest S40 phone vs. the K700 there's no contest, the K700 is just *nicer*. But if Nokia pushed and moved their phones to S60 a year or so ahead of schedule they would get a huge head start on everyone. It's a big bet, and probably would be a lot of pain for Nokia, but it's the right decision. It could be the only decision for them.

The focus on the basic phone though has to be job number one. They need to try simplicity and standardization first and innovate on the inside instead. Functionality over form. Go back to the basics of the 7650 and start again. Nokia has such a fear of becoming just another commodity-phone producer that they've been trying to differentiate themselves on every little design decision instead of just proving to all of us they know how to make a solid phone. Well that hasn't worked, so it's time to go back to basics.

Here's some areas where Nokia needs to get back on track:

Naming: I am the biggest Nokia nut around and I can't remember the damn numbering. Nokia handsets need to have names. The iPod wouldn't be so amazing if it was named Apple's 8833 would it? Give the phones names based on their class and functionality, for god's sake. I can remember that the v300 is less-powerful, but cheaper than the v600. I can remember that the T600 came before the K700. NO ONE can remember that the 6260 is the new Series 60 flip phone and the 6630 is the 3G phone. No one. How about some basic marketing and design on the handset names instead of the wacky keypads?

Market Segmentation: Nokia needs less models. And they need to create phones with levels of functionality, that don't cut one feature for another. Put them in a series of phones and go from there. It's insane that as you go up in price, you can lose functionality due to segmentation. It's so frustrating to have some phones support EDGE but not Bluetooth, other phones that support MIDP 2.0 but not all the APIs, stereo in some phones, but not others (like my 6600 or the new 7610... Why?), MP3 support but no FM, or vice versa. It's ridiculous. It's got to cost Nokia a ton of money to produce and market so many variations - cut them down so consumers can make intelligent decisions.

Keypads: For the last time, leave them alone. Don't make them rounded, or warped, or clicky, or flat, or hidden. Just make them useable. How hard is this?

Standard Memory (SD Card) Support: What is with Nokia's insistence on MMC and "Reduced Size" MMCs? This is almost as monopolistic as SonyEricsson's insistence on it's Memory Stick memory. Nokia needs to move to using the industry standard Secure Digital memory, and now.

Screens: 65,000 colors isn't enough anymore. And the 208x176 Series 60 standard resolution is 12 pixels shorter than everyone else's screens. With the S60 Feature Pack 2 announcement, it looks like Nokia may be planning for the move up the resolution ladder, but it needs to come soon.

Stop Design for Design's Sake: The is the last item and the most important. Nokia needs to stop fidling with what are now industry-standard designs in the quest for differentiation. The old days where the Nokia Classic Style dominated the market aren't returning and they need to accept it.

Here's what I'm talking about. Look at the design of the new 6260. Instead of coming out with a smart phone in the standard flip-phone form factor to ease the industry's mind, Nokia instead produced a "cutting edge" phone that's weird in a variety of ways. Not "innovative", just weird. Compare it to the upcoming Panasonic X700. The X700 is a standard flip based on their popular X70. It's small and lightweight with a big keypad (in a standard, easy to use layout), external color screen, VGA camera with photo-light and SD-mini memory support. Very nicely done.

The 6260 on the other hand is relatively big, heavy (130g!?!?!), has an oddly-placed camera (with no light), odd keypad (the joystick is at the top?), swivel screen with various work "modes", mini-MMC only (under the battery no less) and no external display. It looks like someone at Nokia was being "creative" again. "Look! You can fold it over and it's like it's not a flip!" Yeah, well, we *want* the flip. And we don't want to have to use our phone in "modes". Urgh. Someone put a leash on that design department, would you?

I need to try both the X700 and the 6260 in person before I can make a final judgement, but I think many in the press have already made theirs: Nokia is trying, but still doesn't get it. I'm with them. Let's hope they can get their act together and start producing lust-worthy phones again. They've got the market, they've got the OS, they've got the experience. Now it's just time for implementation.


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