This week, members of The Verge team sat down with Kevin Shields, a Microsoft (and Windows Phone) veteran who enthusiastically helped introduce the Lumia 800 on stage at Nokia World's day one keynote session after having recently joined Nokia as the company's senior vice president of programming and product management for smart devices. Microsoft's Joe Belfiore - vice president of Windows Phone program management, and a guy you might call the very face of Windows Phone - unexpectedly dropped in on the meeting, which made for a pretty fascinating, entertaining, and informative exchange.
We were able to cover a lot of ground in the 30-odd minute interview, ranging from Nokia's push into lower-end markets to its influence on Windows Phone's roadmap, the "N9 effect," and the company's ambitions in the tablet arena.
Chris Ziegler: Since this partnership was first announced, we've been talking about Nokia's ability to really commoditize Windows Phone and push it downmarket more than it had been before, and I think that the 710 is a pretty big step in that direction, but how much more room do you think you have underneath the 710? At least with Windows Phone as it stands today, or in the near future?
Kevin Shields: That's a good question.
Ziegler: Because you're still looking at a 3.7-inch display with WVGA resolution, right? And it's an attractive device… with all due respect, I think it pales in comparison to the 800, I'm really partial to the N9 hardware. But it stands to reason that there's probably some room underneath this device, potentially. But where does that fit in Nokia's time table?
Shields: Well, let me give you kind of a general answer. What I'd tell you is that I'm very confident that with a strong partnership between Microsoft and Nokia, we're going to we're going to build below it significantly. Obviously I'm not here to talk about future products, but I feel like there's a real opportunity to do that. If you look at roadmaps and where we're going and what we can do in the software, I think we have a real chance to have it be a real broad offering. I think this is a good first step, I'm certainly proud of it, I think we can go broader.
Ziegler: And how aggressive is the — I know you can only talk in general terms here — but how aggressive is the roadmap here at this point? The hardware roadmap? Nokia is a company that I think is known for having a very, very beefy lineup that covers all of the market segments, and you're dipping your toe in the water. How quickly are we going to be able to ramp up and see this in other markets with a larger portfolio of devices?
"You can pick it up and say, 'oh, I know why they did this.'"
Shields: Well, it's certainly the case that one of the strengths Nokia brings is a global footprint, so we really want to leverage that. What I'd tell you is that I'll contradict myself on purpose a little bit. On the one hand, I'd tell you that our aspiration, without question, is to go aggressively at multiple price points across the globe and really seize the opportunity. On the other hand, part of the message here is part of the design language that we're investing in. You know, so you sort of reference Nokia's past, and I think one of the things you'll see us do is veer more in the direction of investing deeply in good design language. Products will feel like, oh yeah, that's the brother, that's the sister… at worst, that's the cousin. And not just have, you know, a huge variety for the sake of variety. One of the things we're really trying to hold ourselves to is the notion of apparent differentiation. You know, there's a reason why it's different. You can pick it up and say, "oh, I know why they did this." And not just have it be, well, it's different for the sake of being different. To invest in these core principles as an asset, and then, you know, plow all your resources against building on that. So it's sort of a contradictory answer. On the one hand, I'd say, absolutely, we want to go, "portfolio, we're going big." At the same time, you're not going to see some crazy lineup of stuff that seems incoherent.
Ziegler: This is kind of a niche question, but I have to put it out there anyway. I think that is kind of contradictory with the way that American carriers traditionally operate, right? I think the European manufacturers, Nokia included, have done a commendable job of sticking to their guns on design language and what they're trying to do with their products, and not selling out their souls to the carriers, the American carriers. I know that it's a very high priority for Nokia to move into American carriers with these devices at some point, right? We heard Stephen say that CDMA is coming, and obviously, the US is one of the few markets where that's a really big deal. So how do you balance those parts of the equation? And that's both a hardware and a software question, because American carriers have traditionally been very big on software customization as well, and I think they're backing off that a little bit on some of the Android devices, but it's still an issue in the American market. So how are you coming to that table? How are you managing that?
"And a lot of these operators in the United States, they want Nokia in there. They want to have us have a presence."
Shields: As you can imagine, I'll give you a pretty general answer, but here's the thing. We've been having really deep conversations with them about what are the assets that Nokia brings, and what we're trying to get done. And that's actually resonating. So, you know, they understand — the story we're telling is resonating with them around investing deeply in some things that can become iconic, that bear a strong relationship. And that is, in some sense, to their own benefit. And a lot of these operators in the United States, they want Nokia in there. They want to have us have a presence. So they're looking to help us establish ourselves in a meaningful way. So it's maybe not quite as bad as you think it might be, in that particular respect. Nonetheless, it's a fair tension, you're right, and we have to be careful about that. So we're really thoughtful about, you know, can we make some changes that are still apparent and reasonable without feeling like we're just doing random stuff.
Joe Belfiore: You know, that's funny, you ask that, and I'm trying to think about the specifics that I would say. First, on principle, I don't think we have a principle problem. I think, if anything, we've had a historic lack of capabilities in the platform problem, but we're making a lot of progress on that. So as I sit here today, I don't think I would say that there's any significant lack of customization as a problem in Windows Phone. What we've tried to do is balance the need and desire for end users to get a great, predictable, delightful experience, which means things like being able to uninstall an app, which you can with Windows Phone. But at the same time let operators and hardware vendors go do distinct value add in a way that fits in. Our mantra internally is "elegant coexistence." Let's have a product that when the customer gets it, it feels like it was designed by one company. And I think the framework works for that — carriers are using it to do interesting things.
Thomas Ricker: That desire to have this predictable experience — obviously that applies to the user interface for Metro and the limitations that you put on the hardware vendors from making changes. Andy Rubin last week at the AsiaD conference… I have the exact quote because I mentioned this to Stephen Elop just a few minutes ago: "Windows Phone could be dangerous for Microsoft," he said. "It reminds me of the PC business where every beige box has the same general user interface, things are commoditized." We've been hearing Stephen say over and over again that, you know, his goal is to differentiate. We know that today is a first step, you know, this hardware differentiation, there are a couple apps. So in the future, how loose are those restrictions?
Belfiore: You know, here's what I'd say. I think there is value to consumers in some degree of predictability. You want to know that the apps that you're going to run, that you're going to have a quality experience. You want the basic workings of the UI to be something that you expect and is easy to learn. So in our case, that means there's some limitation on the range of hardware variation to ensure that the apps will all run really well. And then there's a basic UI paradigm, so you have the three buttons on the front, the start experience with Live Tiles, that's fundamentally what we're about. But then beyond that there's a huge range of possibility for people to do stuff. And I think what Nokia's doing is a pretty good example of adding genuine value — with free turn-by-turn navigation, with a music service that's innovative and different than what we offer, than what other people are offering — and it can exist nicely in the user experience in a way that the user gets something predictable and they get value. And I actually think a reasonable analogy might be a web browser. I'm stretching a little bit here, but the web browser says there's a back, and a forward, and a history and favorites, but within this canvas, go nuts and do lots of innovative things. And I think that's worked because there's a good balance in predictability — okay, there will be pages and a history — and a big, wide-open canvas where you can do lots of things. And I think people, because Windows Phone 7 was a new technology code base and a lot of new stuff came at once, and we had a lot of platform work still to do, people have gotten confused by practical things we haven't finished yet versus the principle of how open and flexible it should be. The principle of openness and flexibleness is, let and enable handset makers and mobile operators do great differentiated value-add as long as the end user stays in control and gets a great predictable experience and we're going to move as quickly as we can to keep expanding that.
Vlad Savov: Joe, can I ask you something which I've just noticed with the latest generation Mango phones. There's a proliferation of 3.7-inch devices — these two [referring to the Lumia 710 and 800] are 3.7 inches, the HTC Radar is a 3.7-inch device, and I think the Omnia W if I'm not mistaken is 3.7 inches as well. So is there a drive — whether through Microsoft or through hardware partners — toward that size? Is there any research that people have done that says that size…
Belfiore: There's no drive on our part. We specify a range of sizes, and we support a resolution right now which is WVGA, and hardware vendors can do whatever they want within that range, so it's not facilitated by us.
Savov: So you think it might be the hardware partners themselves thinking that 3.7 inches is kind of the ideal size?
Shields: It's a nice sweet spot. "Ideal" might be going too far, but it's a great sweet spot. It's not too small, it's not too big. It's a good place to get started.
Ziegler: Was there anything in the course — and I think this question works for both of you — is there anything in the course of the development and release of the N9 that is a lesson that Windows Phone can take to heart? Or that Nokia's Windows Phones can take to heart? Because I think there are many interesting stories and sub-stories regarding the N9 for many reasons… but I'm wondering if there's anything in particular that really struck the Windows Phone guys both in Nokia and Microsoft.
Shields: Huh, that's an interesting question.
Ziegler: There's so much interesting software in the N9 that — although it obviously doesn't really make any sense for that line, because it's effectively a dead product — but there are a lot of interesting user interface concepts that could apply.
"One of the things that was special about [the N9] was the focus on simplicity."
Shields: You know, I hadn't really thought about it, Chris, but just changing 30 seconds to think about it, there is one that occurs to me. So it turns out that inside Nokia, there's an appreciation — I'll speak generally, which is… generalizations are, you know, you can get yourself into trouble — but I think it's fair to say that there's a commonly-held view that what we did with the N9, one of the things that was special about it was the focus on simplicity. It was more about what you didn't put in than what you did put in. If you compare that to the most recent Symbian products, we kind of got stuck putting every feature and option in there. And the N9 really did focus on just simplifying. The actual user experience, in a way, is complex, but yet it comes off in a really simple way, right?
Ziegler: Yeah, it struck me how intuitive it becomes very quickly. It's genuinely unique in exactly the same way — not exactly the same way, but in a similar way that Windows Phone was genuinely unique when it was introduced.
"Because on the one hand, we do want opportunities to add differentiation and extend the experience. On the other hand, we don't want to screw it up."
Shields: That's where I'm going. That appreciation, right? So, amongst who I refer to as the influencers and decision makers in the company, the appreciation for, alright, look, there are a lot of things we like about the N9. And one of the things that you can sort of draw a parallel to Windows Phone is a little bit of an attitude of, "don't screw it up!" You know what I mean? And so that's a health thing to take that lesson: okay, look, we can create something, we can create great products. Part of the point was, keep it simple. So it's interesting, you push Joe on this, you know… it's a tension that we do, you know, we talk about on a very regular basis. Because on the one hand, we do want opportunities to add differentiation and extend the experience. On the other hand, we don't want to screw it up. So it's that very careful tension between doing the right things that really do allow us to add interesting experiences…
Belfiore: Not to interrupt, but it's funny, when you asked the question, I realized my point of view on N9 is different than yours because I think you experienced it as this product that shipped, and that happened relatively recently. But my experience was we entered into this partnership with Nokia while they were developing it. And there are all these people that were working on it, and we started talking to them. And so I don't separate the discussions that happened with these Nokia people with the results they got in the N9. So like, you know, I just gave this talk and one examples I gave, I think these guys pushed us in a very healthy way. There's added flexibility that shipped as part of Mango where handset vendors can add screens to the out-of-box experience and Nokia has taken advantage of this in a really nice, elegant way. And, you know, did N9 have anything specifically to do with that? I don't really know, but some of the same people who worked on N9 spent a lot of time with us and said, "hey, we could use this change, and here's why, and you should be thinking about this, and here's why." And so, I think the people and the values have certainly had an impact, and I think you'll keep seeing that. But at least I didn't experience it as, oh, here, this product showed up, what can we learn from it now? Because the chronology didn't work out.
Shields: I think of it like — you didn't ask this question, but another sort of element on the N9 — like you said, there's a lot of interesting little facets to this one. For me, one of the most interesting things is that this product was conceived, fundamentally conceived and built, completely separately from this Metro Windows Phone. I mean, like, they couldn't have been further.
Belfiore: You mean the N9?
Shields: Yeah, the N9. The N9 core hardware design. And yet, now they come together, and these things look like they were custom built for each other. It makes me emboldened. Because, okay, you put these two design and product teams in completely separate rooms, don't let them talk, and they come up with principles that are very similar: simplicity and ease of use. And I think there's just this delightful irony in the fact that this particular, you know, the hero product has these hard edges on it that mirror those tiles. That wasn't, like, somebody said, "oh, let's do it this way." It's the way it's turned out, and it's a reflection of how the two companies sort of in a way got on the same page before they were on the same page.
Savov: Can I just ask specifically about a few features — Chris and I are pretty much in love with the N9. The hardware, absolutely, it's pretty much all the good things that are on the hardware here apart from a front-facing camera.
Shields: I listen to the podcast. "Nokia's breaking my heart!" [Laughter]
Savov: But what about the software? Because I really love the double tap to wake, the swipe thing for notification.
Shields: So do I! [Looks at Joe, laughter.]
Savov: And thirdly, we're crazy about the haptics.
Ziegler: The haptics are amazing.
Savov: We've seen haptics for years and years and we've switched them off almost immediately. It's a two-fold question. One is, would Nokia bring these things over, because there are obviously advantages and excellent features to have. That's a question for you. And the question for Joe is, if someone like Nokia comes to you with something like a better keyboard design and the haptics and the double tap to wake, would you be open to integrating that into Windows Phone?
Shields: Alright, so on the first one. I guess the simple answer is, heck yeah. I mean, there's things… the double tap to wake, the passive notifications, something we call active idle, it's actually something I'd love to see show up in these products. I don't want to announce anything and we have development to do, but I think those are great elements. I agree, I love them.
Belfiore: We want it to be really good. You guys asked about flexibility for partners… we are limited only by how fast we can execute, and we don't want the end user experience to get messed up. And so, I don't think either one of those things would mess up the user experience, but you know, again, we'll see…
Shields: That said, the keyboard on Windows Phone on that device… your point is well taken, it can get even better, but it's pretty good.
Ziegler: And I think it got better in Mango.
Belfiore: It did.
Ziegler: That was my impression, yeah.
Belfiore: Well, at least, you guys should decide what your opinion is on it… but the technology improved…
Shields: But if you decided that, you'd be very right. [Laughter.]
Belfiore: As a specific example, in Mango we added a language model. So in Windows Phone 7, the suggestions and recognition would get messed up if you failed to press the space bar. You had to have spaces between words, because all the recognition was limited on word boundaries. In Mango that's not true anymore. In Mango there's a machine-learned language model that includes words next to each other. So if you have, you know, if you're going to try to type "the dog" and instead you type "the" and a "b" or an "n" because you missed the spacebar — "thebdog" — there are a lot of cases where we catch that and correct it. So, you know, there's a lot of really good research and theory around how to do this stuff really well. We've accomplished a lot of it, but there's a list. We're going to keep going and, I think you'll see it keep getting better and better, but in Mango there's definitely very specific enhancements. Actually, there are others, too. In fact, I think Microsoft Research posted an article on some of them. There are some that I remember, although I can't remember if we got them in Mango or not.
Ziegler: So, I hate to keep coming back to the N9, but I think it's really relevant considering the 800. It feels — and I think you've kind of touched on this point — it feels like it was kind of a creative outlet to express, I don't want to say Nokia in its purest form, but there's a lot of Nokia engineering and concept that's going into that product, right? And it's your product 100 percent, it's not a partnership product. So do you think that it makes sense, or maybe there's an official Nokia line on this, to continue developing products in the future that are pure expressions of the Nokia philosophy that don't involve Microsoft or other partners? You know, "this is our ultimate concept phone," like the N9.
Shields: You know, I actually feel like, in all honesty, Windows Phone lets us do exactly that.
Ziegler: It'll be able to iterate quickly enough to incorporate the design concepts that you want, like the ones Vlad mentioned?
"There's a real strong belief that we can really express our design philosophy with [Windows Phone] and our extensions."
Shields: The design team — you should talk to Marko [Ahtisaari] about this — but I think it'd be fair to say that Marko loves the fact that Windows Phone in a way helps keep it simple. That's a good thing. So, you know, there's a real strong belief that we can really express our design philosophy with that software and our extensions. So it's a roundabout way of answering your question to say, the answer is, yes, and that's where it's going. So that's where you're really going to see us put all of our effort.
Vlad: Joe, just to clarify, if Nokia comes to you with a new feature and says, "this is better than what you guys already have," you're perfectly open to taking that and integrating it into your next build?
Ricker: Or building hooks so Nokia can put it in.
Belfiore: It sounds like you're asking kind of an obvious thing, so I don't know… why wouldn't I?
Vlad: It's because… Apple exists, right? And they have a bunch of really quirky and troubling decisions, so maybe you guys want your software to be built by yourselves. So what I want to know is how closely and how openly your partnerships are with your hardware providers. That's what I'm getting at.
Shields: Well, certainly open with us.
Belfiore: Yeah, I mean, these guys have invested to a level where we're seeing collaboration that is making us better. And where they have ideas or technology or opinions… we want to make a great product. And I think time will tell, but I think they're going to do a great job taking it to market and a great job of things associated with what it takes to make that successful. So we're going to keep investing with them on it. You know, in any one of those cases, it's tricky to figure out how you do it. Do they have an idea which we, Microsoft, implement, and they come to us with the quality assurance of it? Do we create an extensibility mechanism where they write code? There are lots of different ways, and each one of them has pros and cons.
Shields: And we're engaging in all of the above.
Belfiore: And we are engaging in all of the above. And the out-of-box experience example is a real-world example of one that we do in the span of time of concluding the partnership to Mango shipping, which is a pretty short period of time. And that was an example of adding extensibility. So I would like to think that we're very pragmatic about it. If our judgment is good about what would be compelling and if we execute right, then yeah, we're going to do that as much as we can.
Ricker: You know, Stephen is very fond of talking ecosystem and latching onto the Microsoft ecosystem, and it seemed like he was implying, at least at the beginning, that it was always Windows Phone that he was talking about. But the ecosystem obviously extends way beyond phones. So are these conversations also happening? To take it beyond 3.7, to go to 4.65, to 7 inches, so on.
Belfiore: Are you asking me or are you asking [Kevin]?
Shields: If you're asking me, I'm going to pull the "I can't talk about future products."
Ziegler: It does seem like there's a small zone where it's unclear whether Windows Phone or Windows 8 would be the appropriate product. And I'm curious to see how Microsoft and maybe Nokia answer that question.
Belfiore: I don't think so. And there are two distinctions, one is the size and functionality of the device. So, you know, above, say, let's say 7 inches, that's a Windows device. And then the second distinction is, is it a phone? As in, are you going to make voice calls with it? So our point of view is, below, let's say 7 inches, and make voice calls, that's a Windows Phone. Above 7 inches, not making voice calls, that's a Windows device.
Ziegler: So below 7 inches, doesn't make voice calls, that's a Zune. [Laughter.] Theoretically, anyway.
Ziegler: Thanks guys, that was a really cool conversation.