Finnish engineering success story: Nokia

Posted by Sami Tikka on September 5, 2013

Now that news of Nokia selling it’s mobile phone business to Microsoft have been confirmed, I want to reflect a moment the rise and fall of Nokia’s mobile business from engineering stand point.

I have nothing but utmost respect for the brave men and women that built Nokia as it was in it’s glory days. I consider Nokia as one of the brightest success stories of engineering skills and design ingenuity. History of mobile communications is largely a tale of Finnish engineering and clever solutions, that pawed the way for connecting people.

World class hardware design and importance of software

As I see it, Nokia’s strength was on it’s hardware design skills. This was true to the very end, as Nokia design still compares favorably to any other manufacturer. Latest Nokia innovations in imaging (808, Lumia 1020) still are world class. Nokia’s phones were pleasing to hold and tales of their durability are legendary.

However, as it is, technological progress runs and there’s no room for slowing down. Yesterday’s successes are quickly forgotten as new innovations drive the market. Game changed in late 2000s, as software became the focus point in mobile computing. Nokia was unable to match Google and Apple in software engineering. Jorma Ollila, former CEO of Nokia, saw this a long time ago, and complained the European software engineering was not on the same level with North America.

Nokia’s MeeGo was promising OS, that had a unique and smooth approach to mobile UI. It didn’t quite reach the iOS level of smoothness on N9 hardware. Would it have been worked out by optimizing and adding more RAM and CPU? Perhaps. However, the greatest mistake was to switch to Windows Phone. It might have made sense in economical point of view, and for all the reasons Nokia’s board stated when the news broke out in 2011. It has only one design flaw. It is ugly, UGLY.

I was trying the new OS in Lumia 800 the day it was available in Vanha Ylioppilastalo in Helsinki and couldn’t offer comment for Nokia Ääni blog because of my disappointment. Taste of aesthetics is unique, but I believe we still have quite similar tastes to what we consider pleasing UI to look at. To put it simply, single colored boxes on black background is not aesthetically acceptable to most of us. Suppose that we are in the store and are choosing between stylized, colorful, smooth look of Android/iOS and single colored boxes. 9 out of 10 will choose the former. The designers that dreamed up the Metro look for Microsoft simply did not know what they were doing. Sad thing is, WP works quite snappily even on older hardware, compared to Android, which stuttered and lagged visibly.

Magic of engineering

How could Nokia choose that kind of operating system in their phones? Now here’s the interesting part from engineering point of view. I believe that the best engineering and design decisions mostly come from one person, who has a vision and courage to dream up and refine the product, until it fit’s his/her vision. In opposite spectrum we have a committee making a “rational” decision and reaching a compromise. It might result in the most economical and useful decision from the current perspective, but it does not capture the spirit and magic of great engineering and design. This is what I think happened. Nokia did not have a right person on right job who could’ve executed his vision for what would be a future of Nokia mobile software.

As a side note, now that Steve Jobs is gone, I predict Apple will ride a few years on old engineering and design, but slowly loses market share to competitors. Will they find someone with strong vision and skills to see it through is yet to be seen. Tim Cook is not it, he seems to be a bean counter type like Olli-Pekka Kallasvuo, CEO of Nokia after Jorma Ollila, was.

Winner takes all

What makes or breaks a technological product are in many cases tiny things, small decisions made during the design process. These decisions are often overlooked when looking from outside, but they aggregate and amplify, when network effect takes hold and technology breaks through to large audience. And technology is very much a winner-take-all field, as can be seen in current market shares. Android has 70-80% of the market and Samsung takes the most of it’s profits. Why Samsung became the king of the hill in the Android market instead of HTC/Asus/Motorola/Sony/LG etc? The OS is the same, and the form factor seems to be more or less the same. It’s the little things, that amplify with network effect.