Hardware

Can Nokia rise again? The question of culture that saw it fall far from Apple's tree

When being first is not enough - and thinking of the long term can help...

...well-built, reliable and occasionally quirky devices. Now, by accepting Windows Phone 7 into its life, Nokia has agreed to be bound by the design principles that Microsoft has laid down: a capacitive touchscreen, GPS and three physical buttons on the front - 'back', 'home' and a search button that goes to Microsoft's Bing search engine.

While that certainly puts Nokia in a design straightjacket, is that so bad? After all, the iPhone has never been cutting edge in its hardware - Nokia phones had accelerometers before Apple's ever did, for example - and even had a noticeable snafu on the design front not so long ago. And, thanks to the ubiquity of touchscreens, how much innovation is left to mobile makers when the key design dictum is getting as much screen real estate as you can for a better web and app experience - a trend that has backed phones into a dead end of design dullness?

Nokia, then, can only continue to survive - and even thrive - if it can distinguish itself through software. This is now more of a possibility thanks to a concession won from Microsoft and seemingly not granted to any other mobile manufacturer - the ability to add its own software and assorted offerings to the OS.

Nokia the hardware player is dead. Can Nokia come back as a software-and-services Lazarus? The signs aren't good. After all, making crappy software was what got Nokia into this mess in the first place. While Stephen Elop's decision to make a skunkworks in Helsinki and Silicon Valley with the aim of "find[ing] that next big thing that blows away Apple, Android and everything we're doing with Microsoft right now and makes it irrelevant" seems promising, the focus smacks of Old Nokia.

Nokia's Morph concept phone

The use of the material graphene could enable the realisation of concept devices such as Nokia's MorphImage: Nokia

According to a BusinessWeek article, some of the new projects coming out of Elop's skunkworks are a phone that works under water and a "hi-fi speaker that encloses a phone, giving a richer sound". Clever stuff undoubtedly, but, in the classic Old Nokia way, hardware-focused.

What's going to blow Apple, Android and Microsoft away in the short and medium term aren't cute additions like this. It's that old Nokia spirit of innovation brought to software, and we have yet to see any of that, nor have we even heard whisperings of what the software strategy will be, beyond WP7.

While its short-term software strategy remains cloudy, Nokia is still betting a long-term future on hardware. A posting on Nokia's Conversations blog detailed the mobile maker's backing of graphene, a contender for next-generation material of choice for phone hardware.

Able to make strong, light, flexible phones - albeit devices that are unlikely to be on the market this side of 2021 - Nokia describes the material as "future changing" and has joined a consortium aimed at getting the material on the market.

To quote from the blog in question:

  • Why is this important, though? Good question. It means that devices such as the Nokia Morph could soon become a reality. It means that materials could be ultra-thin and could be manipulated at will. Imagine a phone that can be screwed up into your pocket, where the size restrictions of today don't apply.
  • We're really excited to learn that Nokia is trying to bring this technology to the masses, and not only disrupt the future of mobile phones, but for everybody else too. That's true innovation.

Of course, this graphene-underpinned future is way off. But if Nokia can succeed in making hardware a key differentiator in the mobile world once again, it could be back in with a fighting chance. Assuming, of course, it's managed to persuade Microsoft to take the design handcuffs off by then.

There's no doubt getting into graphene is innovation. But if Nokia can keep its software strategy appealing enough to ensure it's around long enough for this long-term, graphene-focused vision to come to pass, now that really would be true innovation beyond anything Nokia has pulled off before.

About Jo Best

Jo Best has been covering IT for the best part of a decade for publications including silicon.com, Guardian Government Computing and ZDNet in both London and Sydney.

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