Nokia Head of Design Marko Ahtisaari talks about priorities, competition, and future direction

Marko Ahtisaari will be a familiar name to Dopplr users, being both the CEO and one of the major investors in the startup's social networking software. Having been acquired by Nokia in late September 2009, his team now works to help Symbian regain its world-conquering ways while Marko himself has returned to Nokia to helm its Design group -- an outfit that, judging by the world's disappointment with the N97 and other devices, is frankly in need of some fresh ideas. So, when we were invited to meet him this morning for a journalist get-together where Marko hoped to "begin the conversation" about Nokia's future direction, we grabbed our pen, paper and DSLR and rushed off to go have a listen. The camera came in use when we got to handle a Nokia N8 prototype for the first time, but do join us after the break to see what else we learned.

This started off on a rather curious note, with Marko informing us that Nokia is doing more than anyone else to promote social change by allowing access to technology in the developing world. He noted the many millions of clocks and cameras that people have been able to obtain through owning a Nokia handset and lauded this democratization of technology that the Finnish mobile maker is apparently leading. While the company's line of ultra-affordable phones is indeed valuable in global economic terms, this was a bit of an underwhelming boast for gadget geeks like us and perhaps indicative of how Nokia feels about its current crop of top-tier devices. Most of what was to follow looked toward the future, that's for sure.


Nokia's future roadmap is drawn around a tripartite portfolio -- you'll have S40-class f... f... featurephones (No, bad blogger! It's a smartphone!), Symbian^3 and ^4 smartphones deluxe, and MeeGo-based godzilla smartphones. We can't guarantee those particular words were used in the meeting, but the portfolio "has to be smart right across." That means a plurality of things, firstly it means that the low-end devices will not be deprived of new features, like location-aware and social networking services, but it also means "UI style innovation," which you may decode as refreshments to the grid- and list-based means by which we're used to navigating our phones today.

MeeGo seems to be viewed as the platform with the greatest potential for innovation, given its larger screen, and there were some hints that those screens are only going to expand. Further probing around Nokia tablets or netbooks was unceremoniously dismissed and it really looks like the company will be knuckling down on sorting what Marko described as "truly mobile ... not luggable" hardware. One other thing he highlighted was that touchscreen interfaces nowadays require the user to constantly look at them, whereas it's in Nokia's DNA to produce devices that can be used easily with one hand or by the blind, and he left us with a big fat mystery to ponder about how that might be achieved with vast touchscreen devices. Haptic feedback (anyone heard from Haptikos lately? We're getting worried) was not ruled out, but it seemed like Nokia might try out some audio-based interface concepts and see where things might go.

N8, Symbian^3 and beyond

Moving along to the new N8 flagship, Marko set out Nokia's new philosophy on how to push its top-tier handsets back into the limelight. To our ears, polished simplicity at the expense of rich feature lists is exactly what Apple's been doing with the iPhone all these years, but it should be no surprise that the same ethos is being reflected by Nokia's new design team. At the time that Marko rejoined the outfit, Nokia also acquired Apple exec John Martin, who had been responsible for internet and iPhone service strategy during his Cupertino days. Which is not to suggest that Nokia's working on some iPhone ripoff, as we were also told that diversity will play an important role in the company's decision making. No one single design language would be preferred above all others, and choices will be offered to all types of users -- at which point we were presented with a pink C3. Touché.

We had to also poke and prod on a couple of pet peeves of our own, starting with the integrated battery in the N8. If you're going to take cues from the iPhone, that's really not the one we'd advocate following, but Marko was categorical that the overall design concept took precedence in that case. He seemed to imply that the N8 just wouldn't have been as good, structurally and aesthetically, if it had to have a door for battery access. Then we asked about the move to capacitive touchscreens in Nokia's latest handsets, and while Marko wouldn't be drawn (old pro that he is) into expressing a preference for a particular type of touchscreen technology, he did agree that user interfaces cannot successfully be designed for both capacitive and resistive displays. Thus, in spite of some well known reluctance on Nokia's part, it does seem like the foreseeable future of Nokia touchscreens will be coming at us in capacitive form. We thought you'd wanna know, wherever you may stand on this issue.

On the topic of Nokia's lack of mindshare on American shores, Marko expressed his hope (or was it intent?) that Nokia will surge back into users' consciousness, particularly on the back of the N8 and a renewed focus on competing at the high end. Oh, and about that potential QWERTY slider variant of the N8? No hardware was confirmed, but the company is committed to offering multiple form factors, and other hints about lower-tier Symbian^3 devices would point to a pretty healthy likelihood of its emergence. So that's that, Nokia's still designing, the world's still spinning, and we've still got more questions than answers about the new OS and user experience. Wouldn't want it any other way though, would ya?