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8/30/2011
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Eric Zeman
Eric Zeman
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Nokia Hinging WP7 Success On Design Chops

Want to know what Nokia's first Windows Phone 7 will look like? Take a peek at the MeeGo-based N9 for a pretty good idea.

Despite its declining smartphone fortunes, no one has questioned Nokia's ability to craft beautiful and functional smartphones--at least as far as the hardware is concerned. The N8, released last year, is a gorgeous example of what Nokia can do when it puts its design teams to work. The N9, announced this year, is equally--if not more--stunning in its design.

Neither of these well-designed handsets will be all that successful. Why not? Because they run Nokia's Symbian and MeeGo platforms, respectively. No one wants Symbian and MeeGo handsets anymore because the software is generally regarded as outdated and crummy. This is part of why Nokia decided earlier this year to drop Symbian and MeeGo and instead rely on Microsoft's Windows Phone 7 platform for the future of its smartphone business.

Nokia is hard at work rushing its first WP7 smartphones to market. What everyone wants to know is, what will they look like, and how will Nokia stand apart from other WP7 OEMs.

Design, says Nokia.

Speaking to the Wall Street Journal, Marko Ahtisaari, Nokia's head designer, pointed at the N9 as an example of what to expect. The N9 is made from polycarbonate materials and has a curved glass screen. It may be overly simple looking, but the clean lines and use of colors make it an attractive handset in today's "me-too" sea of black-on-black super slabs.

"We will drive this trend toward reduction and more natural forms. Compare that to the black, grey, and metallic rounded-corner rectangles you are seeing in the market," said Ahtisaari. "The inherent color in the polycarbonate allows us to do color in an interesting way, and that will continue to be important as a simple symbol of choice."

If you don't think color is important to mobile devices, consider the white Apple iPhone. Colors aren't merely painted on. Colors introduce design and manufacturing complications because they can alter the chemical makeup and behavior of materials. Why else do you think it took Apple nearly nine months to bring the white iPhone 4 to market?

It's not just the hardware that Nokia's going to consider when designing WP7 handsets. Nokia plans to work on the user interface and apps, as well, because Nokia has taken WP7's mantra of interacting with people as the tenet behind its own WP7 philosophy.

"When you look around at a restaurant in Helsinki, you'll see couples having their heads down instead of having eye contact and being aware of the environment they're in," he said. "Designing for true mobility makes it easier for people to have more eye contact and be aware of their environment, and is an example of what people would not explicitly ask for but love when they get it."

Of course, anyone who knows Nokia knew as soon as the company announced its intent to use WP7 that its hardware design capabilities would provide the differentiation it needs to succeed with WP7.

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