HTC design cleans Nokia's clock
And Apple's too
Comment A stone's throw from El Reg's West End Office is Nokia's London design office. If the windows on Great Pulteney Street appear to be steamed up, here's a clue why.
Nokia owes much of its success to design, and employs some of the world's best designers. In the 1990s Nokia put design at the heart of its product development strategy. Nokia gave us small, slim pocketable phones, rather than something operated by Radar O'Reilly from M*A*S*H. It also made the external antenna disappear, and pioneered some erstwhile unthinkable ideas such as customisable covers. As an interface between man and phone, the Navikey UI has never been surpassed. It truly popularised the mobile phone.
If Nokia needs reminding that it has the fight of its life on its hands, then HTC's design efforts in cloud services and its Android UI are a pretty sharp warning. For years, HTC was a contract manufacturer for other people, and its baby steps at designing Windows mobile PDAs four years ago were competent but clunky. It has learned very fast, though, and I don't think anybody is going to be patronising HTC now.
Have a look at this infomercial for Sense - which outlines some of the UI ideas for both the handset, and the cloud service. I'm sorry we can't do much about the American voiceover.
A lot of these ideas are not eye-candy - they're actually quite useful.
Now I'll bet that very little you'll see here has not, at some point, been devised and demonstrated internally at Nokia's design studios. But it highlights the real problem of bureaucracy at the company: the problem is getting good design innovations out from the labs and into shipping products.
You don't need hundreds of designers to achieve that - Apple's team is famously small, and autonomous. They don't need to hail from 35 nationalities, as Nokia's Design team does. (Do the producers of Hollywood blockbusters need to translate dialogue into 35 vernaculars? Often, they don't really need to, and good design is a lingua franca).
But the impressive collection of ideas demonstrated by HTC isn't just an acute wake-up call for Nokia. There's a warning for Apple too - and the teaming Android licensees in whom so many of you have placed your confidence. For example, have a look at HTC's implementation of "Find my phone". It is far slicker than Apple's. And for Android licensees in the increasingly me-too world of Android, the message is: "This is what you have to compete with".
It's as well that Nokia isn't in the same boat. At last with Risku's "twin CEO" strategy - outlined here with one a hands-on product development and design guy - really isn't so daft. But it's unlikely to happen. So what can Nokia Design do?
Get these three right, and you're punching
Three things plague Nokia's product design and development today. One is bureaucratic inertia - and this has been so well discussed here at El Reg and elsewhere, I'll not elaborate here. The other is the fit and finish of the software and services contains such rough edges and loose ends, you wonder if the product managers are on permanent sick leave. Again, this has been observed so many times in so many products, repetition is unnecessary.
But curing those won't save the day. The third issue is a stultifying blandness and conservatism. In the 1990s Nokia had the courage to bring some radical designs to market. Here's one you'll know:
From 1998, the Nokia 8810: the absence of 7,8,9,0,# and * keys didn't stop it being a runaway success
The Nokia 3210, which sold 160 million, received just as much attention to detail, and was the result of different disciplines coming together under that elusive magic that's great design.
Today very little differentiates one E series (Nokia's best traditional phones) device from another, and the four new Symbian^3s are only differentiated from each other, rather than from the competition. The design doesn't do them justice. Rather like the old Soviet Politburo, the goal is internal conformity, rather than exciting and surprising the punter.
This is particularly noticeable in the software design, with Ovi a prime candidate. Was it really necessary to spend so long designing an icon set that didn't offend anybody, when the user can't tell whether the icon opens a folder or an application? Nokia really prides itself on its global cultural savvy, and when you consider that it conquered the world from the base of a tiny home market, you can understand why. But the savvy counts for nothing if the design looks like Esperanto sounds. Nokia aspires to a uniform "design language" - but sometimes, that language sounds like Engrish.
Now if I knew the answer, I wouldn't be sitting here. But recognising the problem should be a priority for the new CEO. HTC has shown what you can do with applied design. It's quite scary. ®