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Can Nokia Beat The iPhone And iPad? (Don't Laugh, It's Trying)
fastcompany.com  2012-03-21 16:45:46

Nokia has plans to refresh its future that start with Windows Phone 7 devices, then move on to a tablet and ultimately aim at an iPhone killer ... all while still selling cheap phones en masse. Can it possibly work?

Nokia has big plans to come back from the brink.

Chances are if you were speaking on a mobile phone in most countries around the world (except the U.S.) six or seven years ago, you were clasping in your hand a little multi-colored, keypad-bedecked bundle of plastic and electronics made by Nokia. Your idle minutes were spent playing Snake on its gray display. But nowadays you're much more likely to be gabbing--and surfing the web, updating Twitter, or playing a sophisticated game--on a touchscreen smartphone built by a handful of other makers.

Nokia, you see, is perhaps the one company that's been dealt the biggest slap across the face by Apple's disruptive iPhone. It was slow to embrace touchscreen tech, slow to let go of its antiquated user interface, reluctant to innovate its smartphone lineup--and subsequently had to shelve its long-held business model, and embrace Microsoft's clever smartphone OS. 

It's planning a comeback. A big one. But success is far from assured.

The iPhone Killer

Nokia's chief of design recently remarked that his company was busy planning a future phone UI that would be so revolutionary it would surpass the current smartphone tech by miles. Marko Ahtisaari concentrated his disdain on the user experience on current Android and, curiously because it's a Nokia staple, Symbian. According to Ahtisaari, the current smartphone UI is a dead thing, a toy, a "dollshouse" in fact, where users can merely adjust the "furniture" of the UI. 

As for the iPhone, Ahtisaari extended the metaphor by saying "the road from the kitchen to the dining room is always through the front door," and slammed the iPhone as being "poorly designed" and overly complex. Ahtisaari is criticizing the iPhone's simlpicity and its homescreen-centric UI, and in a way he's right--Apple hasn't tweaked the overall way iOS works in years. But it's these simple features which hundreds of millions of buyers seem to like, when they arrived they were far beyond anything Nokia was capable of offering, and Ahtisaari is conveniently overlooking some of the advances Apple introduced in iOS which lets you quickly switch between apps without going to the homepage. 

Ahtisaari is more behind the dynamic "live" feel of Windows Phone, he says, which is a more natural way for a user to interact with their phone. Arguably he has a point here too, because you can get meaningful data about a slew of apps from a quick glance at a Windows Phone versus alternatives from Apple or Google. But Microsoft's Metro UI is still a limited system--you can't bend it to your design whim as a handset vendor, and the look and feel is defined by Microsoft (a firm not famous for moving swiftly through evolutionary steps).

Hence Ahtisaari's long-pursued work to develop something better still. Something that users won't even have to bend down to their phones to interact with, or even to touch them.

Which of course has us speculating: Is Ahtisaari talking about the kind of dynamic device UI that Microsoft itself has championed in several "visions of the future"-style efforts, like the video below? It's possible. Or is he talking about a radical new interface that'll rest on voice control, or perhaps incorporate a head-up display--and won't run software from MS but from Nokia itself? Microsoft is certainly looking at this sort of future, as are Google and even Apple.

[youtube Zp-_oUwdSeY]

It's fascinating to see the head of design at Nokia wriggle against the user experience imposed on his customers' phones via Microsoft and suggest that perhaps there's a better way coming soon. One very appealing hint at the sort of thing that's possible comes via this leak of conceptual UIs coming f

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