"Don’t write Nokia off just yet" was the message coming out of Helsinki this morning as the Nokia N1 tablet was being unveiled. In spite of selling its device business to Microsoft earlier this year and swearing off putting its name on smartphones until 2016, Nokia wishes to be seen as the same driver of mobile innovation that it’s always been. Finland’s most beloved company will continue "bringing the magic of technology" to the masses, and the N1 is just "the first of many" new devices coming that will feature the iconic Nokia branding. Instead of entering retirement as a stable but boring networking company the way that Ericsson did, Nokia has decided to keep competing in the cutthroat world of mobile devices. But it’s doing it on its own, rather unique, terms.
Let’s start with what Nokia isn’t. Nokia is no longer a manufacturer of consumer devices. The N1 is the product of a licensing agreement with Foxconn that will see the Taiwanese company produce and distribute the tablet while paying royalties to Nokia for its design and brand. If that sounds like a familiar ploy to exploit the dying embers of a good brand, that’s because it is. The storied names of Polaroid and Kodak have been repeatedly dragged through the mud by money-grabbing licensing deals producing irredeemably bad devices. Nokia’s aware of that history and, according to its technology chief Ramzi Haidamus, is ready to provide the first exception to it. Speaking in advance of the N1's unveiling, Haidamus told Nokia investors last week that the company will set a high bar for quality, and every Nokia-branded device "will look and feel just like Nokia built it."
"We are not copying anyone, we are creating our design."
Only time and the unfolding of the ambitious roadmap of future devices will tell whether Nokia can truly break the established pattern, but the N1 gives some hints about that future. It offers high-end specs, the latest version of Android paired with Nokia’s predictive Z launcher, and a reasonable price that can make it a viable competitor to the iPad mini. It also looks like a deliberate clone of Apple’s 7.9-inch tablet. Sebastian Nystrom, Nokia’s product chief, tells The Verge that "when you make a product like this, where the form factor is a relatively large display, many products look alike" and "there’s only so many ways you can make this product." The tablet’s aluminum design "complements that natural interface that we created," says Nystrom, and his team is of the mind that "we are not copying anyone, we are creating our design."
In many ways, the N1 is the result of an extremely accelerated development cycle. Nystrom says work on the tablet began on April 28th, the Monday after the conclusion of the Microsoft deal, and the choice of Android as the operating system was dictated by the desire to extend the use of the Z Launcher, which the company had already built for Android.
Ramzi Haidamus goes further than his colleague, asserting that "side by side we are better than the iPad mini," and stressing that Nokia still retains "a huge innovation team" even after losing a number of prominent designers and engineers in the wake of the Microsoft buyout. Nystrom backs him up by noting that the N1 was designed by "a solid team of engineers, designers, project managers, and others" who have already played a part in establishing Nokia’s strong design reputation.
Haidamus is now in the midst of establishing a bigger presence for Nokia in Silicon Valley as the company transforms itself into a licenser of designs and patents. Like Nvidia and AMD graphics chips or ARM system-on-chip designs, Nokia’s future work will be about scheming up innovative products that others can build. "We will have a Nokia technology group talking to hundreds of companies putting together market requirements on what is needed in the next phone or TV or tablet, and then we will build it for you and license it out," says Haidamus.
Nokia’s main revenue generator today is the networks business providing communications infrastructure and handling large-scale industrial projects. But the company has also retained a portfolio of mobile patents and a forward-looking research division that has been working on technologies initially intended for integration into future Nokia smartphones. Nystrom and Haidamus are now working to consolidate these royalty-generating assets into a coherent business that can be a "technology leader" for the rest of the mobile industry. This is where Nokia is staying true to its legacy as a mobile innovator: it’ll envision the future and provide the blueprints for making it happen. The difference today is that the company won’t be in charge of the execution of those plans.
The new Nokia presents itself as staying faithful to the principles of the old, but it operates in a profoundly different way. It’s not shy about embracing the most practical operating system or producing unoriginal designs so long as the final product lives up to its historic standards. The new Nokia is also a custodian rather than an owner of its own brand, as it looks to rely on companies like Foxconn to maintain its high reputation for quality.
It’s a familiar name playing a whole new game.