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Tuesday, February 22, 2011

The beauty of the Nokia Microsoft deal

Mobile user experiences have life cycles of about 10 years. In that time enough change takes place in user needs and in technology to enable a disruption. The phone business has and always will be a hit business. Today that hit is iPhone 4, before it it was the Razor and before that a couple of Nokia phones, the 6110 family and the 3310 family. These were unique expriences.

I am sure one day the invisible hand of boredom will appear and we the users want somethig else than an iPhone. I don't see that device, but I see signs of it. The two signs of change are the rapid march of Android and the Nokia support of Windows Phone.

One of the biggest changes in mobile experience happened a week ago when Nokia adopted Windows Phone. This has been discussed, debated all over the net. Having thought about this I though I should offer my view on it. After all this decision will mean death of one of my 'babies' the Series 60 UI. As this is the second 'baby' of mine that is being phased out, I know the process of mourning will be short and we will move on. The 7650, which was the first phone, is in the 'hall of fame' with the Economist cover. The Nokia N95 that was the commercial peak of Series 60 both fond memories. The one I helped to shape the other I was drooling over, while at Yahoo.

There is no point trying to hide the fact that Nokia screwed up with their touch UI's. Touch UI's are fundamentally different, and they cannot be done by reworking a click and scroll UI or a Pen touch UI. This has now been proven by Nokia twice. Once with OSSO, and once with Symbian. It has also been proven  by Microsoft Windows Mobile. Nokia did not start from a clean slate. OSSO was a hybrid of pen and finger. Symbian was a mix of click and scroll and finger. Microsoft Windows Mobile was first a pen and then a click and scroll, but late compared to S60. These hybrids simply did not work and they were big mistakes, they were expensive SW short cuts. If you want to know the technical reason, I have an opinion on that, but that is another post.

Apple dominates, and almost everyone else is a copycat. We now have less differentiation in the phone industry than in the past 10 years.

In UX circles we have for a long time talked about Context or Task Centric UIs. UX people agree that context or task centric experiences are the future, but no one has stepped up and launched one, until Microsoft Phone 7. The Microsoft Phone UI is called Metro, from the underground network that connects you seamlessly from one place to another and from the clear signage the real world is full of. It is a great name, and a powerful guide for designers. It the first UI that has taken bold moves towards the context UI. (one of my visions here from 2007). The Metro vision is from 2004 it seems a long time ago, but designing these UI's take a long time. A key  reason is timing the paradigm shift. Microsoft simply had the guts to do it first. A huge bet. We do not know if it pays of, but one thing is certain it will be the catalyst to the next paradigm if it is not it. The most important sign is user reaction which generally is positive. Once that happens the rest will unlock.

Both Microsoft and Nokia knows that this is where things are going. Nokia is joining an industry transformation or even a disruption, started by Microsoft. It is a transformation, because we need to rethink how services work, how users are drawn into the services, and how branding is done and how customisation is done. How services are mashed up. Lost of challenging Service design rather than UI or UX design. Metro takes the UX business and turns it into a service business.

One primary reason Nokia fell behind in UX is that they did what their customers asked them to do, namely to customize the UI to each operator. So as most of the SW work is customisation, and Nokia has the two most powerful operating systems for customisation in the world Series 60 and Series 40 they have the killer assets right? No, wrong. Customisation consumes lots of effort, but is too shallow to make a diference. Customisation to work has to be much deeper than what was done for Symbian and Series 40. Apple does not customize, their customers are the users, not the operators. Hence they are the winners of finger touch era, but their apps are their ball and chain to the context UI. Their app metaphor does not scale to a context UI.

That takes us to Android. It allows for deeper customisation, but at some point it could become fragmentation, meaning that the apps do not work on all Android devices. Google is in a very clever manner controlling this, by applying a strategy of Core Experience and Core Apps. This strategy means desiging a very solid experience core, evolve it quickly and then build only a few core apps, Maps (for navigation and local monetisation) Marketplace (for app distribution and monetisation and business model control) and Gmail (for communication control) It is not water tight, but a good strategy. Then they with its openess seduce manufacturers to do deep customisation. This is not bad, it adds value, but it is not the beginning of the future, it is a better past. It allows for smaller players to play, as they don't have to build a complete operating system. Android could dominate by volume. They do not care about experience as long as they control few key ones that monetise.

This gets me to the 'present future' of Windows Phone. Windows phone is the first generation of a context UI. It employs a strong and simple new design ethos of hubs. It is nicely scalable with their swipe right to reveal more idea.

The secret to Microsofts and Nokias success is to avoid the temptation to customize. If Nokia does not demand it, Microsoft can say, Nokia does not do it, other should not do it. Instead the focus should go into making smart serivices, services that start with UX HW and goes deep into HW. For example Smart camera that makes beautiful pictures and allow to share, edit and keep them on the internet. Or Smart Maps that enables instant positioning, finding deals, avoiding being lost. I am sure there are several other similar services like Smart wallet, where one leverages NFC HW all the way to back end services. Smart search allowing you to speak to the device and get help from a digital butler. These type of services are the future of mobile and building them require huge investments, but not control of user experience, just a good flow. This is why I think the Microsoft deal is a win win.

It will also let Nokia focus on inventing a new paradigm, and Marko Ahtisaari, Peter Skillmann and team are busy doing that, now they got the creative room to do it. They are metaphorically in a life boat to Galapagos to evolve some new species. The Series 40 platform is a fantastic asset that is completely controlled by Nokia from top to bottom, and can become an interesting transformation in low end.

I think the mobile market is too big to be served with one operating system, one device architecture. We will need pure high-end and pure low-end.

Now Nokia has a vechicle of change to the future Windows Phone, the room to invent the next big thing and a great differentiated asset in S40 and the Maps service and the access to Carl Zeiss technology.

The cards are on the table, now egos, and corporate cultures are the biggest threat to the journey to the context era.

10:17 AM | Permalink


I think that I have a similar feeling to smart/context-shifting mobile experiences as you do. I can definitely see from my time as a mobile device user that I have more preferred paying less attention to what I can customize, and more attention to how the device and the services on/within it respond to my immediate needs. If you will, if the platform offered the ability for the info to piped into my viewport in a way that was always relevant, which is what Wndows Phone proposes is possible, then I'd be more tuned to using the mobile more and in "smarter" ways.

You mention that S60 needed/needs too much work to be built into such a UX paradigm. Wouldn't it's foundation be most conductive to such a transformation of paradigm use?

Posted by: Antoine RJ Wright at Feb 22, 2011 4:28:29 PM

Nokia is the best mobile company.It has a great achievement in world of mobile phone.It is big deal for it.I am so glad to see this.

Posted by: cashback at Feb 26, 2011 8:30:37 AM

Having recently spent some time doing side-by-side comparing between iOS, Android, Symbian^3 and WP7, I agree that WP7 is a new breed when it comes to a mobile-sized user experience. Somehow everything seems to connect in a more natural way on WP7 compared to the others, which, I guess is a layman's way of saying it has some truly smart features. I also hope overt customization won't come in to ruin this experience, though talking to some people makes me think a variety of UI graphics could increase popularity. While I like the current clean looks, some people just seem to be attached to their polish and bling UI graphics too firmly.

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Posted by: Lisa at Mar 10, 2011 7:32:06 AM

Hi Christian,

You say:

"The secret to Microsofts and Nokias success is to avoid the temptation to customize."

I note though, that in the press announcement on the launch of this partnership, that it was stated that although the partnership was not exclusive there would be unique features for Nokia. Although they didn't explicitly state what those unique features would be, at the time I though 'cue WP7 fragmentation'.

I will find it hard to believe that Nokia would only differentiate on hardware and not want to play with the OS somewhat.

Lets see.

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