For those smartphone manufacturers that use one of the top three biggest OSes — that's everyone , then — the only way to differentiate yourself is through hardware.
That's especially true for Nokia since it threw in its lot with Microsoft. While hardware has always been Nokia's strength, it is now even more crucial as it seeks to re-establish its position in a world of anonymous black slabs.
An end to craziness?
It's a shift from Nokia's old ways, where whacky, if not always successful, devices appeared, the 7280 lipstick phone, the S-shaped 7600 and the contortionist N93 among them. In the Microsoft era, it seems Nokia has lost the quirkier side of its hardware. Can the company's smartphone designers go crazy any more?
"The designers here have a lot of sense and experience," says Jonne Harju, senior smartphone designer at Nokia. "They don't just come and say, I want a fully transparent for device for next year'. They might do sketches around them, but the realities are different.
"When we look to the future, what are the crazy ideas? What is feeling crazy now is feeling OK in three years' time."
The designers are aware now of the importance of design to the company's future. Niilo Alfthan, senior design manager of smartphones at Nokia, says: "Obviously in design as a field, you can do crazy stuff — we've done that, but the brief to us is very clear now — it's to bring us back on track."
As if the importance of design needed labouring, designers are seated not far from those who study Nokia's bottom line, in Nokia's headquarters in Espoo, just outside the Finnish capital Helsinki. They have, apparently, one of the best coffee machines in the building (no mean feat in Nokia House — the coffee is both good and heart-startingly potent).
Many of the Helsinki team of designers, charged with developing a handful of Lumia devices a year, have over ten years' experience with the company, so they've seen the evolution of Nokia smartphones from their earliest Communicator days through the idiosyncrasies of Symbian to the pared-down Lumia era.
When the design team begin work on a new phone, rarely will they start with an entirely blank page — concept work has been done on what a phone's next generation should look like, or what features will be its selling points, technical studies are being worked on and there are blurry indications of the parts that will be available to them in, say, two years' time.
The designers have to think far ahead — they're already thinking about how smartphones will look in 2014 and onwards.
"We had a meeting with the software UX guys where they showed their thinking for 2014 and 2015 — now that they have ideas, can we implement it and work out what does it mean for the physical object. We are complementing it," Harju says.
Nokia now introduces hardware features designed to work with specific Microsoft software features — for example, the curved glass bevel found on Lumias was added with how it feels to perform Windows Phone swipe gestures in mind.
In recent years, there have been efforts to make Nokia's design language more coherent across its various device families: the Windows Phone-powered Lumias, the Asha featurephone line and the assortment of more low-end devices that follow on down the stack.
"Even though they look different, there's a Nokianess to them — sometimes it's difficult to say what it is, but the Nokianess is always there" -- Jonne Harju
The Helsinki-based Lumia designers meet up with their Beijing-based Asha counterparts monthly to share their learnings, and elements used in the Lumias can, over time, appear on their lower-end Asha cousins. Material development in particular is an area of particular cooperation — the Lumia team might do prototyping work on a new polymer and pass their findings onto the Asha team.
For the Lumia and Asha ranges, Harju says, "the industrial design itself, the architecture, how it looks inside, it's different — there's different R&D, and different price points. But overall how it looks, how we handle design in Asha and Lumia, it's very similar. They look like family. It feels like they are part of the same DNA."
But the designers are not there to make clones, Harju says.
"We don't have copies of devices, they all have characters, they have something that people can choose, so they can pick up what fits them best. And even though they look different, there's a Nokianess to them — sometimes it's difficult to say what it is, but the Nokianess is always there," he says.
"When we design Lumia products we are approaching them in a very rational manner to ensure that we create the absolutely best product out of the tools we have but the true Nokianess comes from the dash of irrationality which then makes the product human to us.
"This approach has been our guiding principle ever since the Nokia N9 where the otherwise extruded and rational look and feel of the product has that slightly puffed back. It's like somebody breathed air in it, making it alive. In Lumia 925 this principle is coming through in the way we designed the aluminium frame, giving the otherwise cold material softness to feel more human in your hand."
The Microsoft deal signalled not only an era of design unification, but also helped tighten up release schedules — when both hardware and software made inhouse, a slip in Symbian schedules would cause knock-on disruption in hardware.
With Windows Phone on a more regular release schedule, its latest all-purpose flagship device, the Lumia 925, was one the faster devices Nokia's Lumia designers have worked on — a year from when the programme began to when the devices made it into consumers' hands.
The evolution of the 925
It may have been fast, but that doesn't mean it was easy. Normally Nokia designers will have a functioning prototype of a phone before the decision is made on whether to schedule the device for release.
And when the designers decided to introduce metal elements into the 925's casing, they "tripled their challenges", Alfthan says. "The product was like a living animal after that."
While there was considerable enthusiasm for a metal case and some "pre-work" had been done on how its inclusion could impact the antenna, when the designers seriously began to take stock of what its inclusion would mean for the product, it was a "sobering moment".
"It was a big learning process and a rollercoaster ride," he says.
While the company has experience in all the elements that go into a metal antenna — Nokia had made phones with metal casings before, including the steel 6700 — the 925 was still a departure for the company: Nokia had never tried to put an antenna into the metal itself before.
The phone would need to combine a metal frame and polycarbonate back, while avoiding the "death grip" that can cripple a phone's reception when users actually put their hands on it.
Around last October, after the company had already slated the 925 for launch, the metal casing caused a few headaches.
"We got some antenna results and it wasn't working at all and we'd already decided we were going to produce this. Suddenly, it's not working. To me it was superscary, I was like, 'oh my, what are we going to do?' That antenna problem can easily rip the whole concept apart."
When kinks appear in the design process, the team can ask for help from the research and development staff. "We go to R&D and it's more of a therapy session — we say 'man, we have issues', then they start helping you out — 'don't worry, I think we can fix it this way'," Alfthan says.
Getting the splits in the aluminium frame just so turned out to be in key to producing a functioning metal antenna.
"The grade of the plastic that we were using for that little split, it has a certain value that we needed to look at and make sure that it is communicated right in the antenna simulations. There's a lot of minute things that, as a designer, you don't really need to think about with a plastic phone because it's RF-transparent by nature."
The shape of the device and its geometry were similar to the designers' initial vision, and much of the tinkering and finetuning around the device went on that all important metal rim, and trying to get the yield of the parts — the percentage of the components are high enough quality — up to the right level to make it cost-effective to use them.
From prototype to production
When those parts arrive can be one of the favourite moments for the design crew. While prototypes and non-functioning models will be created before the production version is made, it's only when the final parts arrive that the designers get a sense of how it will really look and feel in the hand.
"When you start to see real parts, that a beautiful moment. Even if there's a problem, you start to go 'whoa'," Harju says. "There's always surprises — not all positive surprises, sometimes! It's almost like a baby born — it's like, wow, it's real — even if it's a simple part, like a cover. Then from that day on, we start to improve and improve, finetune all the details and then it's in the shop."
With the phone's display in front of them, they can know how big the device will be, for example, or with a camera module, begin to get an idea of how thick the device will be, and so how much play they have fitting the rest of the components in.
Prototypes are followed by factory builds, an important milestone on the way to the phone's release. "It's almost like a marathon you just started," Harju says. "You're not even half way, it's the first 10km — and you have 30km to run. You have a nice feeling, but you know it's going to be long process to get it done."
Between the build and the device entering production, the designers can be tempted to tinker with it — maybe a colour tone here or a component shift there — before the final whistle is blown.
"Sometimes you want to improve, improve, improve all the time. We tend to try the impossible — you can't get everything right on the first build."
Not all of the technologies that the designers want to include will eventually make it into a device, however. In the 925's case, a bigger display was on the drawing board but was pulled after it was found to be monkeying with the all-important antenna.
"We were trying an idea where we were trying to fit a bigger display and in that point in time, we were thinking let's make a bigger display... then we realised it did not help because of the antenna — there was interference," Alfthan says.
And while some variants of phones never make it to release, their features may live on. The prototypes are archived for posterity and sometimes later revisited — meaning occasionally a feature that didn't make it in to one device can be reused on its second generation.
It's not uncommon for features to get a second life, whether they're cherry-picked from an old phone or they just weren't ready in time for a device's release schedule.
"We are always, always stretching the limits," Harju says. "We know sometimes it's very, very tight for a technology to be mature enough in the timeframe [for it to be included in a device], but we think 'let's try to do it', because then if you start something it can be moved to the next device — at least we've started something. If you don't start some new innovation, you don't necessarily get the result later on."