Mobile Evolutions in a Nokia Photograph

A year of evolution from Nokia - looks like there's some... on TwitpicLate last week this photo of recent Nokia mobile devices was posted on Twitter. The person titled it “a year of evolution from Nokia” and instigated that there might be something forthcoming as there is a bit of a evolution that does seem to be happening in these devices being placed as they are. There can be an evolution here, but it might not be what could be easily assumed, let’s look at this in a bit more detail and see what mobile evolutions are there to uncover.

What’s in the Photo

In this photo there are five (5) mobile devices, released by Nokia since late 2010.

  • There are two (2) devices using the Symbian mobile platform – the left most devices: the N8 (top) and the E7
  • The next two (2) devices use a variant of the MeeGo mobile platform Nokia had been working on – the top device being the N9 and the bottom on the developer-released-only N950
  • The last device is Nokia’s current mobile platform, Windows Phone, and their headlining device using that platform (at least before CES last week), the Lumia 800.

This isn’t something that’s as easy to do with every mobile platform maker, and certainly Nokia’s seen a lot of change in the last year. But to be able to have such a fast evolution of design, platforms, and even marketing all in one picture is pretty neat. What then can we learn:

The Symbian Devices

Symbian is (probably) the oldest, and it is certainly the most efficient and mature mobile platform in this picture. Nokia has been using it on devices since somewhere around 2002, and just about everything you can think of doing with a mobile, and a number of things that you don’t, has been tried, experimented, or implemented with Symbian. Its a tough platform, versatile platform, and outside of some issues related to low-level coding, UI, and governance, a pretty solid offering. I use the N8 personally now, and aside from the N9 (will chat about that next), there’s not been much about mobile worth turning my attention towards.

The thing is Nokia is moving away from Symbian. A “burning platform” its been called by its current CEO (Stephen Elop). Its a platform that really has had trouble keeping with the user interface changes of the last half-decade in mobile. That’s not to say that its unusable, only that its not as smooth, nor has it been able to be as market challenging as Android and iOS have been. Shame though, I’ve found it a smarter mobile platform than others just because its so usable out of the box (its depth of stuff it can do is amazing, still).

It irony of the picture is that these two devices are noted in a grey color. Almost signifying that they are fading away from the scene, despite their abilities to have a screen that shines as brightly as current market participants.

Note also that there is a keyboarded device (the E7, bottom) and a touchscreen-only device (the N8, top). Symbian was flexible enough to do just about any mobile input paradigm that you could throw at it. Its even got voice commands and message reading built into the system (without needing to do any training). Its good, but wasn’t good enough to continue for Nokia even with all of its plusses.

The Shortened Paradigm Shift – MeeGo (Harmattan)

The middle devices represent something of a shortened paradigm shift for Nokia (and one can argue the mobile industry). These two devices (the N9, cyan on top, and the N950, black on bottom), came out of a long-term look at mobile from Nokia. These devices, in some respects, were supposed to represent the ending of one type of mobility – typified by the Symbian operating system, carrier-lead approaches, and application-centric behaviors – to another (agile management and development efforts on the part of Nokia and its communities, user led interaction models, and task-binding behaviors). However, with the Symbian change, there was also the change here. The N9 was introduced to much acclaim, but to a small audience. The N950 was shown to a smaller audience with an even smaller amount of hands able to design their own mobile experiences with it. It is a paradigm shoft, but an abbreviated one.

Then look at the colors. The N9 wasn’t just interesting because of its being different of a platform, nor its lack of buttons, but that color and its interaction model (called Swype UI) spoke more about a mobile that was supposed to come alive when it was near you. It relied more on sensors than specific button interactions, and this was indeed different. The N950 is the keyboard-equipped brother to the N9. Like the E7, it was meant to be more of a productive machine, a communicator and a developer’s toolbox if you will. It also shared the Swype UI and the interaction methods of the N9 – but the package was rough(er) than what you’d find in Symbian. There is/are still some gaps in the user experience that just didn’t make enough sense for Nokia to take the risk with this device. Though personally, it would have been quite amazing to see Nokia push the mess out of this platform, using everything they had left, to make a device that worked equally well on any carrier, and then also empowered the owner to take more ownership of their mobile life.

That’s what the color of the N9 meant to me. The black of the N950 seems like an admission of the same death that was happening with the grey in the Symbian models. Still a great screen (pentile display annoyed some folks, I’ve not seen it in person yet to comment directly), but not enough to make it past an abbreviated mention in this evolutionary course for Nokia.

Windows Phone and an Open Opportunity

The last device is the Lumia 800 (it could very easily be the Lumia 900 which was announced this past week at CES). This is the platform, the interaction model, the ecosystem, the type of future that Nokia and much of the mobile world seems to be aiming for. A future where there’s this filter of your mobile abilities into windows of activities, and those services/utilities that matter make themselves available to you by working with the mobile company and carrier that you choose (though that choice is slimmer since those partnerships are usually exclusive).

The 800 in this picture is black as well, but look at its screen. Its bigger and more text-laden icons seem to scream more of a message of “hey, I’ve got something here for you” more than the other screens. Yea, it has apps, but those apps come behind you. This is something that the three-screened homescreen approach of the MeeGo devices offer, but it wasn’t quite in the front of things there. Those devices still took a bow to the application-centric use (marketing) that other devices do today. With Windows Phone, its about putting relevance in front of you, and then letting (mobile) life play out.

Now, I would have gone with a more “alive” color if I were the photographer, as that would have spoken a better message about Nokia’s prospects in this kind of evolution. But, until there’s something that happens bigger in the market for them (besides the noise they are making for themselves), the color presented here says simply that Windows Phone just isn’t alive enough yet. But, in that shift they are making, there is an open opportunity for something neat to happen.

So, What’s With the Missing Keyboard Device

I thought about this a bit. I wanted to say that in that 6th position would go a slider device, running Windows Phone. But, that doesn’t exactly fit the evolution here. It does if Windows Phone was supposed to enable that communicator, developer-friendly kind of mobile lifestyle. But, that’s not the aim, nor something that Windows Phone can be shoe-horned into. There’s got to be something else in terms of how people use mobile, how people craft their lifestyle environments with a mobile that the addition of a keyboard to a Windows Phone device would have to offer. I think… and this is just me thinking way out of the box a good bit… that a Windows Phone device could have a slider, but that it shouldn’t be a keyboard – at least not a hard keyboard.

It should look like this dual-screened Kyocera Android model.

Windows Phone isn’t really all about “typing” as much as it is about navigating the panes of digital and augmented experiences. If there was to be an evolution of the N950 to Windows Phone, I’d expect something a bit more befitting the framing of a dual-screened device that could do the keyboard when its needed, but would also be another screen adding to the ability to keep your head-up from the mobile to do life around you a bit more. I’d actually see it as less of an accepted form than even the E7/N950 too. Windows Phone with that dual screen would be that half-smartphone/half-tablet that would indeed speak to a ton of uses for many, but keep them engaged only when the context dictates it such. Nintendo has done similar with the DS-series of GameBoy devices, but not to the extent of using a user experience (UX) paradigm that takes your focus into and out of mobile efficiently.

A Mobile Evolution for Nokia (and Perhaps Others)

And so we have in this picture an evolution of mobile. We go from mobile-centric, to PC-like, to PC-merged platforms. We’ve got a change in focuses from apps to tasks to events in terms of what the owner manages. And from tight carrier controls to tighter UX controls. All in all, we can see how Nokia is evolving, and in some respects make assumptions as to whether it it will be a good one.

As this picture shows, there’s a lot to draw on from Nokia’s recent past that would be of a nice benefit to all of mobile here. But, the best parts of it need to evolve in such a way that as people come to the front of the experience, life also endures to something better.

Looking forward to what’s next (dual-screened Windows Phone devices or not). However, I’m not easily impressed Nokia. Make a fan/admirer proud why don’t you 😉