BitDepth 523 - May 09

Nokia's designers contemplate the phone's future at the company's Open Studio in Berlin...
Peering into Nokia's future

Nokia's thinkers. Main photo: Anthony Dalby and Axel Meyer, designers. Inset top: Harri Männistö with the mobile TV enabled N92. Inset bottom: Ari Virtanen with the Nokia 770 Internet Tablet. Photo by Mark Lyndersay.

There are some smart folks at Nokia, and they made time to talk to reporters at the company's recent Open Studio 2006 in Berlin. Along with colleagues from Mexico, Brazil and Chile, these men cautiously fielded questions about their plans for the future.
Divining their thinking is crucial to understanding Nokia's market plans, which have been shot to hell in the United States by Motorola, leaving the Finnish phonemaker with the very low end of the market and the very high end. Motorola's line of attractive but cost-effective mobiles have taken a steadily increasing share of the mainstream US market.

Aggressive competitors like Samsung are studying the successes of leading mobile manufacturers and developing feature clones that have enjoyed varying success.
At the top end of the mobile market, Nokia has a excellent operating system built into its phones, their S60 flavour of the Symbian operating system offers a richness that the flaky OS of the otherwise sleek Razr lacks.

But Nokia doesn't have phones that look like the Razr or the Slvr or even the Pebl. Heck, Nokia's phones don't even have names, not even vowel challenged ones.
What they do have is features that may or not make a difference to consumers today and in the future. Their new N series line, for instance, doesn't just have a camera with a photo quality megapixel count, it's got a Carl Zeiss lens built into it, essentially replacing the kind of camera you might slip into your other pocket.

The Symbian OS is easily extensible, with a range of software you can download to the phone that turn it into even more of a PDA with a dialpad.
But that doesn't change the fact that Nokia's most expensive phones move into far different territory than the style-conscious one covered by Motorola's thin-is-in line. The N93 for instance, is a behemoth of a cellphone, but it's also a news reporter or family film director's dream, a pocketable video camera with transmission capabilities.
Watching Anthony Dalby and Alex Meyer, designers for Nokia play with the N93 while they talk it's easy to see the mindset behind the result. Almost absentmindedly, Dalby flicks and twists the screen of the phone, which can articulate through most of a 270 degree arch, never losing eye contact with his audience.

Dalby and Meyer might not have carved the shape of the phone themselves, but it's clear that it didn't get into production without passing through their hands.
Dalby and Meyer are the stylish and hip face of Nokia, but you'll find the same passion for the right solution in the craggier features of Harri Männistö, who cherrily describes himself as one of the "old men" of Nokia.
Männistö is, rather astonishingly, Director, Head of Nokia N Series Watch new Multimedia. Well, that's what his call card says and I have it right in front of me.
What that appears to mean is the he's the evangelist for Mobile TV, a new standard for viewing regular television programming on your handheld phone, and if you want to annoy Harri, just ask him why the standard he champions, Digital Video Broadcast (Handheld) or DVB-H, shouldn't be accepted across the world. He's got some practice arguing for new standards after working years ago on the early GSM implementation.
Männistö's project is Nokia's N92, a phone that flips open like a ladies' compact and receives and decodes DVB-H transmissions.

DVB-H is the next generation iteration of a technology that's still to go mainstream, Digital Video Broadcasting (Terrestrial) which has begun operation in parts of Europe. DVB-T, or a newer version of it, is the way that broadcasting is likely to be done in coming years, with higher quality video broadcast to the open air. The handheld version of it uses time slicing technology and buffering to allow mobile devices to receive the signal.
Our last interview is with Ari Virtanen; a man with an impish smile who always seems on the verge of breaking into a Cheshire grin. In Virtanen's hands is a small black and silver tablet that looks intriguingly like the love child of a tablet PC and a Palm PDA.
As it turns out, it's a little of both and not quite either.

The Nokia 770 is Virtanen's convergence device, a Linux powered Internet tablet that dispenses with any pretence of making phone calls to tap into the possibilities of 3G (third generation) wireless networks. If this device makes phone calls, it will be doing it using Skype.
The 800 x 600 pixel screen is startlingly crisp, and the device can do PC things if you need to, but it really comes into its own as a way of viewing movies (Ice Age played without hiccups on the device) and browsing websites. Offered for sale, the 770 seems more like a proof of concept and Virtanen acknowledges that it's limited presence in the market has been most useful as a means of gathering information about what people want to use it for.
It's also sturdily constructed, which Virtanen presages with that grin before tossing it over his shoulder.

After an evening of peering through the frosty glass of Nokia's future (more was deflected than acknowledged) all that comes through clearly is the outline of a company that's looking to leapfrog its current market challenges with products that stake out uncharted ground in the future of handheld devices.
It's a leap of faith with an uncertain landing, but for Dalby, Meyer, Männistö and Virtanen, it's just a matter of time.
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