Designing For Success
By Carlo Longino, Mon Apr 11 23:15:00 GMT 2005

Shareholders lambast Nokia's CEO over the company's handset designs, while Motorola's resurgence owes a lot to a popular new design ethic.

One commonly cited factor in handset behemoth Nokia's troubles over the last couple years was that its designs -- focused on so-called "candybar" models, were out of step with the tastes of the market, which seemed to be all about silver clamshell models. Meanwhile, Motorola, which hasn't been known for popular designs since the StarTAC days, has rode the wave of popularity started by the looks of its "triplets" series and underlined by the runaway success of the flashy RAZR. So as technology becomes commoditized, design takes on more importance.

The result is Nokia CEO Jorma Ollila taking heat at the company's annual meeting about its designs, while the talk continues about how the RAZR saved Motorola. Both stories are probably a little exaggerated, but definitely based in fact. Clearly Motorola's industrial, shiny designs struck a chord with consumers, while Nokia's tried-and-trusted designs fell out of favor with some consumers.

Both companies are hip to the power of design, but their "design" models are still limited mainly to a few high-end handsets, though the new influences are trickling further down their portfolios. Motorola's shown off its RAZR follow-ups, the PEBL and SLVR, while Nokia's got the slightly wacky designs of its fashion line, and the recently announced 8800.

The 8800 is an interesting device, not just because of its looks, which evoke thoughts of the Vertu luxury models, but because it follows comments made by the company's design honcho, Frank Nuovo, two and a half years ago on the future of mobile devices. Nuovo envisioned device design evolving alongside functionality, with an emphasis on fashion through high-end materials that can be considered on the level of artifacts, like fine watches.

Device technology will soon reach a point where increases in functionality are incremental -- after all, upgrading from a 5-megapixel camera to a 6-megapixel isn't nearly as dramatic as going from a QVGA camera to a 1-megapixel one, the same type of small increase you'll see in areas like screen resolution and storage capacity -- and more functionality upgrades will be software-based. At that point, product design becomes even more important than it is today, and companies will be hard-pressed to stay on top of -- and lead -- the market's tastes.