After Microsoft: Nokia's CTO on patent trolls, perfecting wearables, and how lazy brains shape tech

After Microsoft: Nokia's CTO on patent trolls, perfecting wearables, and how lazy brains shape tech

Summary: When the Microsoft deal closes, Nokia will get a new unit called Advanced Technologies. Just what will this unknown quantity be working on?


In perhaps as little as a few weeks, Nokia as we know it will cease to be.

After agreeing to sell its devices and services unit to Microsoft in a deal worth €5.4bn, Nokia is set to be divided into two: the handset unit will become part of Redmond when the deal closes later this year, while the rest of Nokia's non-handset assets will carry on as a separate company.

That business will still bear the Nokia name and will be headquartered in Finland but it'll be a very different beast to the Nokia that's been a mainstay of the mobile market for over two decades. Under the terms of its deal with Microsoft, Nokia can't make mobile handsets for at least another two years.

Without its devices unit, Nokia will be comprised of three separate businesses: its networking unit NSN, the mapping business Here, and a third element — everything else including patents and research. This third unit will be rolled up under the banner of Advanced Technologies, and staffed by around 600 Nokians.

Nokia execs are now working on the future shape and direction of Nokia after the deal closes, expected sometime this quarter.

Henry Tirri, Nokia's CTO, is among those charged with working out where the company should place its bets post-Microsoft.

"In my current life, I have two different worlds — the pre-closing world and the post-closing world. In my day job, I'm still the CTO of the current Nokia, which is then owning research, advanced engineering, standardisation, some special projects that we are doing, some platform assets," Tirri told ZDNet at the Slush conference in Helsinki late last year. "Then of course, there's post-closing, so I'm also working on the strategy for the new Nokia."

The new Nokia

The unit that Tirri now works on, the CTO office, will become what he calls one of the "backbones of Advanced Technologies". The research-focused CTO office has traditionally contributed around two-thirds of the intellectual property that Nokia generates every year, and that work will continue when it's rehomed.

A key focus for the unit will be radio technologies — the things that once underpinned Nokia's mobile empire —  but the company is also turning its R&D eye on non-cellular types of connectivity too. Sensor technologies, imaging, audio and cloud are also on the new Nokia's R&D horizon.

Tirri envisions tomorrow's technology as today's, but pumped up: everything connected (hence the radio research), everything digitised and updated in real time (hence the cloud), and everything larded with tech to make it aware of its environment (hence the sensors).

While it may not be making the mobile devices that populate this future mobile world, Nokia hopes its patents will still be at work within them.

Patents currently make around €500m a year for Nokia, and the company said recently it will aim to derive greater revenue from its portfolio of thousands of patents, by signing up new licensees for existing patents, and licensing out those that had previously been withheld from the market at large to help Nokia's handset business.

This emphasis on patents has already caught the eye of the European Commission with competition commissioner Joaquín Almunia saying recently: "Since Nokia will retain its patent portfolio, some have claimed that the sale of the unit would give the company the incentive to extract higher returns from this portfolio... If Nokia were to take illegal advantage of its patents in the future, we will open an antitrust case — but I sincerely hope we will not have to."

There have even been those who have suggested that with no hardware arm and a heavy reliance on patents for revenue, the company will effectively end up a non-practising entity (NPE) — the polite term for a company whose only business is patent trolling.

It's a charge Tirri refutes, saying that the fact that Nokia will retains Here and NSN alone would mean the company couldn't be a troll. Aggressively milking its existing portfolio is "not a very sustainable, or a very wise, business. Yes, we have a young patent portfolio, so for next ten years, we can utilise two-thirds of patents, but still, it's not a sustainable business", he added.

"I don't envision us buying patents and then selling them. Considering the amount of patents we have, I don't think we have any need to go anywhere else. Of course, we might want to occasionally work in licensing mode where we want to help a company or a partner that would not have such IP protection, but that's business as usual — it's very easy for me to see these are different things."

Licensing of technologies, rather than purely licensing patents, is more likely to figure in Nokia's future — where it researches and develops products at the behest of customers, who then license the technology from Nokia.

"Our R&D is heavier than many of the other licensing companies that are not looked at as trolls, the ARMs and others — we would be very equivalent to them," Tirri said.

The future of hardware

At the Slush conference, Nokia gave a taster of what we might see from the company in the next couple of years.

Staff from Nokia's research centre demoed projects including a product called Wireless Fast Flow which would allow users to automatically broadcast content from their phones straight to the nearest display, and an older project, Kinetic UI. Designed to work on a flexible device, the user interface would let smartphone owners control their device by bending it — zooming out from a photo by bending the sides of the device away from them and zooming in with the reverse gesture, for example.

Hardware was once a source of differentiation for Nokia and its rivals. Now, mobile hardware seems to come in a single variant across the board, a shiny rectangle: can hardware regain its former importance, particularly in the world Nokia and others envision where all the intelligence, storage, and processing power comes from the cloud, rather than the device itself?

"Taking the things which are sitting here [on a mobile device] and putting it in the cloud allows you to have form factors that you couldn't have before, because you don't have to physically put the memory or computing stuff in there. That means the hardware, the form factors, will diverge like crazy because you don't need to always be constrained by the physical resourcing you need to do," Tirri said.

But if the technology doesn't constraint the form factor, our own hard-to-change habits might: Tirri, a former professor of AI, suggests that the reason there are generally only two sizes of tablets is that we struggle to get used to new form factors.

"Why don't you see tablets that are different sizes? You have a tablet which is magazine size and a paperback size — that's because of our usage habits. You could have a tiny tablet, a whatever size tablet." 

Why don't we have that whatever sized tablet? Because the inherent mental laziness of humans means we tend to prefer form factors — the magazine, the paperback — that we're already used to.

The reason why other form factors that are familiar from the offline world — the watch, say, or the flexible screen — haven't caught on in their mobile hardware incarnations is simply because they're not bringing anything more to the party than the object they're seeking to replace, often just serving to replicate the functionality of another device wholesale.

"I still believe that, for lazy brains, there has to be some super-good benefit of using [a piece of hardware]... I personally am not interested in the watch form factor messaging device, but other people are. My main point is more that the wearables that people are talking a lot about are still accessories to another device. I'm much more interesting in devices which are augmenting my life, my senses, etc by themselves."

More on this story

Topics: Nokia, Emerging Tech, Mobility

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  • Please...

    ...let Nokia keep doing what it does, even after acquired by Microsoft. Nokia has talent, style, and produces excellent products and software. Microsoft should be more like Nokia.
    Sean Foley
    • Nokia isn't being bought by MS...

      ...just its mobile device business, which happens to be most of what it's been doing in recent years.
      John L. Ries
  • Grrrrammar

    WRONG "Nokia will be comprised of three separate businesses"

    RIGHT: Nokia will comprise three separate businesses


    RIGHT: Nokia will consist of three separate businesses

    Sheesh, as they say...
    • Grrrrammar (2)

      or even
      Nokia will be composed of three separate businesses...

      Regrettably the incorrect form as written in the article appears all too often in many articles and posts from all kinds of people...
  • It appears...

    ...that despite what our interviewee says, Nokia's primary business will be "gotcha" lawsuits, making the term "patent troll" appropriate.
    John L. Ries
    • no you're just cherry picking

      A troll by definition creates nothing
      and has nothing to do with research and development other
      than looking for a violation for licensing.

      I bit more respect for a company that underpins mobile tech that we enjoy today
      due to their innovation and products would not be unwarranted.
  • MS buying NOKIA devices business

    MS buying NOKIA devices business, under which NOKIA will not make devices for two more years and MS will keep the Brand name. So what happens after that, Can nokia make devices again, IF so can they make windows phones, what will they cal them. NOKIA owned NOKIA windows phones. :)
    • They're keeping the brand name for two years

      at which point they will become "Microsoft" handsets, and then Nokia can make phones again under the Nokia name.

      For everything else it's still Nokia, today and going forward.
    • Erm, not so much satoshoo47

      MS gets to use the Nokia brand on all existing feature phones and any subsequent phones created on the S30 and S40 systems.
      MS does not get to use the Nokia branding on any new windows phone handsets. They do however now own the 'Lumia' name -- which can continue on. It just won't be a Nokia Lumia.

      Nokia could make handsets still but call them something else sans the Nokia name.
  • Two years does not seem long enough for a bloated whale like Microsoft

    to actually get something new out. They must be trying some kind of market perception angle to make it look like they are gaining on Android and iOS phones. Still, it would be nice if the synthesis actually comes up with something innovative that would put them up with the other two and intensify competition so more power becomes more affordable.
    • maybe not...

      The thing is not the next two years... as the R&D already has the stuff in the pipeline.
      And Nokia D&S will continue to pump out its planned products.

      WP with threshold would be the first with a perceived MS flavor but I would say this is
      not really true as that will be visible across the board.

      MS is more interested in integrating the D&S features quickly than trying to drive it.

      Think about a platform with integrated location services off-line and the benefits to apps?