Nokia: Culture will out

Stuck inside of Espoo with them Nokia blues again

OK, you got me.

You knew I couldn’t go for very long without having some kind of outlet for random thoughts and personal opinions. To paraphrase Forest Whitaker in The Crying Game — and boy, does that date me — expressing same is in my nature.

So forgive me if I go back on my word a little, and use this space to comment briefly on the contrast between what have already become the daily and weekly rhythms of work in my own practice, and what I saw during two years at Nokia. I guess I’m moved to do this both because writing helps me organize my own complicated thoughts on the situation that company finds itself in, and ideally because it might help clarify things for others. My hope is that everything that follows will prove especially useful to you if you’re on the verge of joining a large, global organization — or leaving one.

Executive summary: Despite the omnipresent burden of responsibility, and the inherent risk of failure, there’s an excitement and pleasure in working on one’s own behalf that was for the most part missing entirely from my Nokian experience. The word I keep coming back to, in my head, is “unbound,” and it’s an unbelievably lovely and liberating sensation.

My experience with a project we’re working on, even at this very early stage, might serve as a small illustration of why the entrepreneurial life has already been so rewarding, and incidentally, why I wouldn’t look for innovation from large organizations. At any rate, it’s as good a way as any to comment, hopefully constructively, on Nokia’s recent and ongoing troubles.

Most obviously: our size lets us move fast. We’ve taken this from first notion to Illustrator sketch to technical validation to “Patent Pending” in mere weeks, and not very many of them. This is in distinct contrast to my experience in Espoo, where anybody wanting to launch anything at all had to secure layers (upon layers) of buy-in from people who — in many but certainly not all cases, and with all due respect — are not properly equipped to evaluate the merits of the propositions they’re being presented with. I’m hesitant to generalize. Honestly, I am. But my personal experience suggests that rather than acting as the incubator/force multiplier/accelerator it ought to have, Nokia’s corporate culture served as a brake on all kinds of innovative thought.

We’re better-equipped to detect and respond to actual user needs. Nokia’s problem is not, and has never been, that it lacks for creative, thoughtful, talented people, or the resources to turn their ideas into shipping product. It’s that the company is fundamentally, and has always been, organized to trade in commodities. Whether those commodities were stands of timber, reams of paper, reels of cable, pairs of boots, or cheap televisions for deployment in hotel chains, much the same basic logic applied: acquire, or manufacture, great quantities of a physical product for the lowest achievable cost, and sell for whatever the market will bear.

Nokia’s engineers were and are brilliant at this. I am so far from an expert on the topic it’s not even funny, but I’d feel comfortable wagering that there is still no organization on the planet more capable at designing the guts of a phone, the various antennae and radios-on-a-chip that allow a handset to communicate with a network. Nor are there many who can compete with Nokia on the ability to optimize a supply chain and bring in a given bill of materials at a given (and generally astonishingly low) cost.

These are precisely the skills you need if you’re interested in dominating a global market in commodity communication devices, as Nokia did for the fourteen years of the Jorma Ollila era. But the company utterly failed to anticipate, understand or organize itself to deal with the critical thing that happened at the cusp of the Ollila-Kalasvuo transition. This was that you could no longer think of mobile phones as communication devices. You had to conceive of them as interface objects through which users would experience content and command functionality that ultimately lived on the network. (That grandeur and disproprotionate benefit would accrue to those who did understand this shift was underlined by Apple’s launch of its astonishingly successful iPhone in late June of 2007, just over a year after Kallasvuo ascended to the CEOship.)

Individuals at Nokia, of course, did understand this — many of them. Indeed, the entire Insight & Foresight unit produced material throughout the immediate pre-iPhone period that was as visionary with respect to the emerging paradigm as anything I’ve seen, just as, throughout my tenure, the Design Strategic Projects team under Phil Lindberg continued to generate ideas that for the most part took the full measure of so-called 4G/LTE networks and cloud-based interaction.

But whether as teams or individuals, the parties trying — energetically, and in good faith — to help the company avail itself of this insight were ignored. Compensated competitively, paid lip service to (if not actually fawned over, or rubbed as if for totemic good luck) in presentations to the Group Executive Board…but comprehensively overruled when it came time to set policy or direction. I’m tempted to say that considerations of user experience were bypassed at a structural level.

And this is the crux of it. As it happens, the value-engineering mindset that’s so crucial to profitability as a commodity trader is fatal as a purveyor of experiences. Of course you still want to produce your offering for the lowest achievable cost — but that cost is bound up in intangible, nondeterministic dimensions of design, in ways that are only partially-at-best quantifiable. It’s just not particularly wise to allow engineers to make decisions about things like product and service nomenclature, interface typography and the graphic design of icons: they’re, I daresay, not even neurocognitively equipped to do so. And yet this is what happened when I was at Nokia and, I would imagine, is happening still.

Again, please understand that I say this with enormous respect for my engineer friends, who manage without thinking twice to achieve a very great number of things for which I am not neurocognitively equipped. My point is merely that, at Nokia, engineering has been allowed to displace what is properly the company’s design prerogative almost entirely.

I’ll give an example. Nokia spent many years, and a great deal of money, doing research and development of a technology called NFC, or “near field communication.” NFC really does have the potential to transform all kinds of everyday interactions; it’s essentially a flavor of RFID that allows signals to pass between objects that are brought within close (touch or tap) proximity with one another. It’s the gimmick underlying the phone you’ll buy next year, with which, if you live in the developed world, you’ll almost certainly conduct the lion’s share of your daily monetary transactions.

When I arrived at Nokia, the folks down the road at NRC were very proud of something they’d ginned up: an NFC-equipped, but otherwise entirely conventional, vending machine. At last!, I thought, here’s a concrete step toward the future of everyday transactions. And in what was, from my perspective, the very best kind of context: that of an interaction so banal and unremarkable that it undermined any conceivable charge of utopian handwaving. Whatever frisson of futurism you derive from the encounter quickly subsides beneath the threshold of the ordinary, which — per all my gurus, from Don Norman to Jasper Morrison and Naoto Fukasawa — is exactly as it should be.

Except that, as realized by Nokia, this is precisely what failed to happen. I experienced, in fact, neither a frisson of elegant futurism nor a blasé presentiment of everyday life at midcentury. I was given an NFC phone, and told to tap it against the item I wanted from the vending machine. This is what happened next: the vending machine teeped, and the phone teeped, and six or seven seconds later a notification popped up on its screen. It was an incoming text message, which had been sent by the vending machine at the moment I tapped my phone against it. I had to respond “Y” to this text to complete the transaction. The experience was clumsy and joyless and not in any conceivable way an improvement over pumping coins into the soda machine just the way I did quarters into Defender at the age of twelve.

It’s not that the NFC-based, phone-to-object interaction didn’t work. Of course it did: it had been engineered perfectly. But what it hadn’t been was designed. Those responsible for imagining the interaction apparently wanted to protect users against the (edge case!) contingency of someone making off with their phones and running up a huge vending-machine tab. They failed to understand that, for low-value transactions like this, at least, the touch gesture is a useful proxy for consent — and that if someone’s got physical possession of my phone, I’m likely to have bigger problems than whether or not they order a few cans of Coke with it. A designer committed to the user and the quality of that user’s experience gets this in a way only the rarest engineer seems to. Designers are also, by training and predilection, inclined to design for the usual, where engineers are taught a kind of rigor that compels them to account for, and overweight, low-probability events.

Bottom line: the “magic” of an NFC-based transaction, the “surprise and delight” our esteemed colleagues in Marketing so often demand we wrest out of technological interactions, was foreclosed from the beginning. All of the potential lightness and elegance that would make this not merely a possible way of doing things but a better way was ruled out, by an organization committed to the virtues of engineering rather than those of design.

Is it entirely fair to expect what was, after all, a product of a research lab to exhibit much in the way of polish at the level of interaction? Ordinarily, I’d say no, of course not. But for the fact, that is, that certain highly-placed people in the Nokia mainforce were aware of the NFC vending machine project, delighted with it as-is, and perceived little if any fault with it. It may certainly have needed some “fine tuning,” I was told on more than one occasion…but otherwise stood proudly ready for the day the mass market was provisioned with NFC-capable phones, and could make use of it.

I have to conclude that it’s this inability to even perceive the clear makings of an unacceptably bad user experience, let alone address them as profound obstacles to success in the marketplace, that leads to situations like this.

Another, blunter way of putting it: there’s nobody with any taste in the decision-making echelons at Nokia. And this is especially unfortunate and ironic, given that elegant, simple Finnish design has tutored generations in what taste means. My whole tenure in Espoo was soured by the nagging counterfactual, “What if Nokia had embraced and extended the finest traditions of its own national design culture, in its approach to the global mass market?”

Something tells me that Stephen Elop, whether or not he turns out to be a Trojan horse for Redmond, will be comprehensively unable to help in this department.

We’re happy if our product is viable enough that it reaches an audience, and contributes in any way to making those lives easier. It doesn’t have to be a blockbuster. This raises a related issue, which is that Espoo is only and solely interested in scale. In Nokian terms, this generally means “on the order of tens of millions of users.” On the surface, this is defensible, but it means the company doesn’t really have many innovation pathways open to it. It certainly can’t tolerate the kind of lowercase experiments that other institutions benefit from, whether these are inherently viable businesses generating high-multiple ROIs that are, however, small in absolute terms, or probes like Twitter that enjoy no clear business model at their outset, but later find scale and thereby produce value.

In concrete terms, this means that projects like Nokia Sports Tracker — one of the best things I saw during my time in Espoo, and in my opinion actually superior to the Nike+ iPod offering — are abandoned, orphaned, starved of the oxygen they need. This despite what I would have thought was the obvious fact that it’s projects like these that lend your brand an aura of futurity, build consumer enthusiasm and loyalty, and generally make your company more attractive as a place for people to work. In other words, they pay for themselves many times over and in many ways, whether or not they generate revenue. If nothing else, they cut down on headhunter bills; a company that fully and whole-heartedly supports homegrown initiatives like Sports Tracker is a place where bright developers will want to play.

Although I had nothing a’tall to do with Sports Tracker, it’s extra-galling to me personally that Nokia killed the project more or less in the same breath that it embraced the frankly ludicrous fantasies peddled by acting head of Services and Developer Experience Tero Ojanperä (“responsible for the company’s portfolio of location, messaging, entertainment and context-based services”). I find it so galling because the company had, in its sweaty little hands, a truly pioneering service that showcased its devices and their onboard sensors at their best, leveraged locational technology, was fun to use and nice to look at, and, if you’ll forgive a little jargon, demonstrably “drove user engagement.” And it literally threw this all away, apparently preferring to indulge itself as an institution in, among other things, the fantasy of being a glittering media brand.

I always thought of Sports Tracker as something I would be proud to have designed myself. Now, though, in my role as managing director, I understand that I would be equally proud had I anything to do with creating the kind of environment in which folks like the creators of Sports Tracker might thrive. That’s why it’s inexplicable to me that Nokia’s mid-upper echelons took a pass on what was obviously a service with a bright future — I mean, if success indisputably has many parents, didn’t they want a win they could claim credit for?

I have a great deal more to say on the topic, if you can believe it, but I’ve already gone on pretty long, and likely stressed your interest and/or patience to the breaking point. Quickly, therefore, and I say this to everyone who’s ever whiled away their hours in the corporate breakrooms of the world, boring their coworkers with dream-architectures of world domination and largely ungrounded assertions that everything could be so much better if only x and y and z: I wish I’d done this years ago. Gone out on my own, that is.

You own your mistakes and failures, certainly, in a way that a large organization can trivially buffer you against, but so too your joys. Yeah, it’s brisk out here…but so, so exciting, and there is at the very least a 1:1 ratio between the effort you exert on a day-to-day basis and what is seen to come of it. Say that about any big shop you care to name, I dare you.

As for Nokia, their fate is their own, too. Given the highly questionable judgment displayed by the organization and its senior management over many years, I’d say they’ve finally gotten what was coming to them — but for the fact that “they,” in this context, unavoidably includes many who have been doing their absolute best, under truly thankless conditions, for far, far too long. It’s to you that I’m going to raise my glass tonight, and you know very well who you are.

It also includes just about the entire Finnish people, for whom Nokia has long been a particularly significant benefactor, and for whom I retain a great (if frequently enough puzzled) fondness. These people are blameless — or if not blameless, certainly don’t deserve to be held culpable for the blunders of a few. To me, their experience is a sobering reminder of the responsibility for the welfare of others one takes on in deciding to start any kind of venture at all that extends beyond the shores of the self. And if, in the end, that’s all I wind up taking away from my time in Espoo, I guess that’s not such a bad deal at all.

118 responses to “Nokia: Culture will out”

  1. ARJWright says :

    Awesome read, and adds context to my thoughts. Glad that you managed to scribble some ideas, offers part of the context of organizational lessons that smaller companies will want to pay attention to before growing, and that larger companies taking a similar large space as Nokia has will want to adjust to even faster, if that is even possible with certain structures and ingrained behaviors.

  2. Janne says :

    Just want to stress that the vending machine thing wasn’t mine :) I’m actually real proud of the stuff that we did and designed around NFC (which did no – and I repeat, did not – include the aforementioned vending machine. Remind me to tell you that story sometime :)

  3. AG says :

    Aw, I know that. But yes, let me reiterate for the record: IT WASN’T JANNE. : . )

  4. Tommi says :

    Thank you for the sharpest view on Finnish corporate structure. We have design, we have engineering. We need visionaries of both and not only one of these to lead the way. Luckily the game design business already is changing the Finnish way.

  5. rich says :

    Adam – I think the classic adage that large-scale systems (i.e. companies) can’t innovate because of their scale is definitely true, but because of the resources they have (people, money, IP) multinationals can still identify meaningful signals and invest in, buy, partner there way in to keep shifting the center of the company – to orchestrate the creative destruction to keep gutting and remaking the company in a strategic manner – much like Nokia had done at least twice before. But such a company has to make it clear that every individual in the organisation has to merit a place in the new incarnation in terms of skills, attitude, even physical location. This is what companies like Nokia have a hard time doing until it’s (almost?) too late.

    Where I think I don’t necessarily agree with you is the division between design and engineering. I can find anecdotal evidence of egregious missing-the-pointism on both ends of that spectrum of orientation. Because in my mind, that is what it is – a spectrum of problem solving, nothing more. I would add that traditional business thinking, user-centered design thinking, engineering, and social science are all trying to do the same thing: solve problems. And to me, then logically, it’s about framing the problem and specifying the specs for the outcome. If the vending machine solution had been prioritised around simplicity, speed, or even providing an instantaneous advantage over using coins, I’m guessing a group of engineers would have come up with a more optimised solution. It’s no coincidence that all these disciplines use the term ‘design’ to describe what they do, so its really the combination of these disciplines that make for better solutions, not simply switching one dominant but incomplete view of the world for another.

  6. Moira says :

    Nokia got to do it for us – customers.

    That means delivering a happy user experince. Look at the Nokia´s add in todays Helsingin Sanomat front page and your realize what´s the problem: they do have neither the product nor the image. Where is the reason(read desire) to change the mobile phone at all?
    And if want to do it anyway, why an earth would you choose a N8KK8499ZXX….

  7. Janne Saarikko says :


    This post really made me think and compare with my own experiences.

    For a while I’ve been trying to understand the cultural mentality of Finns, who, as a nation, made a great success in many areas where process, optimization and functional engineering were required. We’ve made some world class solutions in fields of paper and pulp engineering, machinery, shipbuilding etc.

    One thing that made these industries scalable, were the lessons of lutheran church and social-democratic equality, teaching people to be humble, equal and honest. It was always a vice to be better, different, stand out from the crowd or talk to people about these. Also, people were taught not to complain if something wasn’t good enough, but to swallow one’s selfish thoughts.

    Nokia, having lot of the seniority with such background, how could you expect anything unique?

    This is a dilemma I am happy to see fading away. In Nokia case it just wasn’t there early enough. :(

  8. NormM says :

    Thanks for the insight on Nokia. One comment though on your NFC example. It doesn’t make sense for the vending machine to send a message to your phone to ask for confirmation in case someone has stolen your phone, since they would just confirm if the phone is still enabled (and once the phone is disabled, the NFC should also be disabled). This must have been intended as a protection against accidental purchase. But your point about design is still absolutely valid: confirmation could have been done, for example, with an immediate second tap.

  9. Mentifex says :

    If only Nokia would rush to create technology in artificial intelligence for their mobile devices (sigh).

  10. Dunstan says :

    WRONG. Way to miss his point.

  11. Walter says :

    As Steve Jobs would say, Nokia lacks the right DNA.

  12. oomu says :

    you are wrong. deeply wrong.

    Engineer and Designer are the same folks you have to PAY and let WORK to create GREAT products.

    You also need a Vision, a goal, a place, to nurture creation. A vision can be made by engineer, or artists or even a commercial, but it has to exist.

    Apple or google or nintendo are companies who gained their success from tremendous engineering and people BELIEVING in it !

    Steve Jobs is not simply a guy with great instinct, it’s a guy believing a LOT in engineering .

    when he saw raw technological stuff he knew what it could be with time, blood and money. He specifically put engineer and designer in position of power.

    You can verify, a lot of key persons in Apple has all degrees in technical schools or/and worked in technical fields.

    “industrial designer” is a technical field. It means a lot of knowledge in materials and industrials tools.

    the main point is : Engineer/Artists Are WHAT you need to listen to have GREAT products.

    But Nokia never believed in them. The story about NFC and the wannabe apple/nike product tells that !

    it’s not nokia engineer was inferior humans unable to have taste (lacking “neurological” skills.. whatever racist explanation please you..) . NO !

    The real reason Nokia failed is because business and managers of nokia DIDN’T believe in their own engineer and technologies and so didn’t give the MONEY needed to create now great products and to market them efficiently. They didn’t want to create things with the work of their own engineer.

    the raw technology is what engineer does with a tiny budget. Great products as Nintendo Wii, Apple Iphone or Dyson cleaner are what engineer and artists can build when you gave them money, focus, great management and faith in the genius of their work.

    You have to show respect to Work. You have to respect Engineering.

    You have to respect knowledge and technicals skills


    you have to accept a great truth : Design is TECHNICALS and ARTS used together. It’s a technical jobs at heart. You have to master industrial and technicals tools.

    Nokia was just happy to be a seller of cheap commodized products for China.

    China learned they didn’t need foreigner to use their own factories and so was more efficient than Nokia, destroying their last source of growth.

    now, Nokia will be eat and dropped by Microsoft. piece by piece of intellectual properties they had.

    All of that because people like have NO respect of engineers and designers. you don’t understand how much technicals knowledge are a necessity to LEAD ! YOU HAVE TO LEARN from Apple success !

  13. Tuomas A says :

    I even got my dad to use Sports Tracker during his skiing and he liked it. And he doesn’t even want to use a heart beat monitor.

    At the time my next phone was going to be Nokia too almost solely because of that one app. And then they ended it, “not core business”. And I realized that they really didn’t get it.

    Thanks for the insight, I suspected something similar, the signs were plenty, I didn’t know how wide spread it was. Selling phones was just selling phones, who cared about further business after it was sold. Reduce memory and other things to the bare minimum that still passes as workable. In the end, how is logistics the core pride of an IT company? It makes them great in huge scale sure, but if that’s the only thing that matters, you’re UPS.

    …and I am an amateur in this and a Finn and it has been painful to watch this slow decline. But even if I saw glimpses of it…

  14. François Nonnenmacher says :

    “I can find anecdotal evidence of egregious missing-the-pointism on both ends of that spectrum of orientation. ”

    I concur with that.

    Your engineer but nevertheless friend,

  15. mordy says :

    I agree wholeheartedly … I’m going to name 3 phones n95, n97, n8.

    3 progressively better phones, but at the same time, 3 phones with absolutely terribly ui. On my N95 … nokias flagship, with mindblowing features (especially when it came out),
    N95 – “Do you want to allow this application to connect to the web?” “This time/ Every time” … is only for this single time the application is open … I’m pretty sure i want gmail to access the web every time i open it .
    Or perhaps its the fact that the prompt asks you to delete twice, and it takes 10 seconds to delete an mp3.

    N97 & N8 – Touch screen with no transition animations on the homescreen … no thats not why im angry … Nokia created a Flagship product with the most desirable hardware list I have ever seen, and put symbian os on it … I just want an android UI (for all its flaws) on some nokia engineering.

  16. AG says :

    François, Rich: But which end of the spectrum is responsible for Nokia’s ills?

  17. Rrr says :

    Nokia will sink along with the Symbian platform it barely manages to float upon.

    Solution: Find another ship to stay afloat on.

    It’s hard to build another ship while sinking on another.

    Even ship builders have more learn on how to stay afloat in modern waters and times.

  18. Joe McCarthy says :

    Adam: I’m glad you took the time to share [more of] your insights and experiences at Nokia. Although you joined Nokia shortly after I left, and were operating at a much higher level in the corporate hierarchy, I can relate to several of the issues you describe here.

    The issue of scale is particularly resonant. Even at NRC, where we were supposed to be pushing past boundaries and extending frontiers, the question “But will we be able sell a billion units?” would often arise … and, well, that’s often a pretty tough case to make convincingly for a new application, interface or interaction model during its early stages.

    I’m glad you are finding entrepreneuria so much to your liking, and hope you continue to enjoy success in your post-Nokia career chapter!

  19. Canis says :

    I very much agree with Rich: It’s about the spectrum. This is important, and I believe it’s a key part of what sets Apple apart: They employ people _across_ that spectrum.

    I’ve worked at companies with _fantastic_ designers and _fantastic_ engineers. Didn’t help make fantastic products. Why? *The gap between them*.

    Engineering in a bubble. Design in a bubble. Trying to smoosh it together at the end and make it work. Both sides get frustrated because their clean and perfect (code/design) is “suddenly” required to change to fit the needs of the other. Their response? Politics, the blame game, trying to get one side or the other declared “in charge”, that kind of thing. Whether it’s engineering, who make an efficient, technically-sound but ugly and user-hostile product and then expect the designers to “slap a coat of paint on it”, or whether it’s design creating an attractive and UX-graceful design that is technically unfeasible or filled with failure-modes they didn’t think of, and expecting engineers to “just make it work”, neither way round works.

    “Engineers are from mars, designers are from venus” thinking makes the problem worse. They’ve developed different skills, but both are designing solutions to problems, operating within a complex web of constraints; just because they’re used to considering different sets of constraints and applying different rules-of-thumb, doesn’t make them alien.

    Closing the gap — something that’s part training, part process/organisation, part hiring practices — so that you have a smooth continuum, is what’s necessary. Interdisciplinary teams — working together, not compartmentalised. And people who fit into the interstices.

    So you have deeply technical/specialised engineers providing low-level infrastructure, interfacing with more generalised engineers who maybe can’t construct an OS kernel or a 3G radio but can still code the hell out of an application, and also understand UX issues, even if they can’t draw.

    At the other end, you have artists, and highly-conceptual designers exploring ideas that are highly responsive to human needs, but may not even be feasible, talking to more practically-oriented UX designers who need to factor engineering constraints into the designs. And in the middle, you have a blurry range of coder-scripter-designer folks — the kinds of people who you often see doing interesting work on the web, who have a honed design sense but also the technical chops with HTML/CSS to hand-craft their sites and make them standards-compliant as well as beautiful — who tie it all together.

    (This is assuming a large company like Nokia, of course; for a small startup, you tend to find this gets compressed down to 2, maybe 3 people tops.)

    “François, Rich: But which end of the spectrum is responsible for Nokia’s ills?”

    Neither. Management is.

  20. Philip Lamb says :

    You might have something to say here, but it’s lost in the poor writing. You need to work on expressing your ideas more succinctly. It might be that English is your second language, and I’m doing you a disservice, but you could probably shorten this by 50% and get your point across much more persuasively.

  21. Tuomas A says :

    Philip Lamb

    It might also just be you. I had no problems understanding what Adam said. Reading comprehension is a skill. So, maybe you should try reading more and get better at it? Try to tackle those scarier longer and more complex texts. There’s no reason why as non-native English speaker you could not succeed.

    Or maybe you just wanted to live against Wil Wheaton’s law. But that would be sad in so many ways.

  22. Barry says :

    In response to a few comments, Android is definately is not the answer. Android would make Nokia another commodity player in a sea of generic android phones. The market is flooded with Android phones with the sole aim of a race to the bottom line in price. Even the cheapest basic of basic handsets will have android on them in 6-12 months (this will devalue the HTC X’s or Samsung Y’s – who will pay more for these when you can get a chinese android with the same functions at a fraction of the cost)

    Individuality and uniqueness is what would have saved Nokia, the iPhone was announced in 2007 and if Nokia only had Symbian then certainly by the launch of iPhone 4 it should have developed a Nokia alternative ready for market. This is th epoint I am most interested in – what was happening at Nokia from the day they held the iphone in their hand and declared the Nokia response/vision…

    You could argue Nokia being a commodity player could use a commodity software like Android, but you are going to have to sell a shed load of Nokia/Android phones to make any money. Even from a business perspective Nokia bosses should have seen that Apple has 5-7% smartphone marketshare but with 50% of that market. This is the point you need to compete at, but you need a unique selling point and there’s nothing unique about Android today and even less when th emarket is saturated with androids 6-12 months down the line.

    Nokia should have learnt from Sony (walkman)

  23. Barry says :

    that should read Apple has 50% of the market profit

  24. Harvey Gartner says :

    I have very little doubt that the entire design of Apple products is carried out perfectly with casual conversations between Jonny Ive and Steve Jobs. He is Apple’s Product Design Director because Jobs loves his designs. Second instance is also Apple and that is Tim Cook. He is Apple’s COO because Jobs knows nothing about making the trains run on time, doesn’t want to know and he hired a guy who he NEVER has to here from.
    But Apple has NO committees. It must be wonderful for guys like Ive and Cook to work for a guy that lets them do their thing in a gigantic and meaningful way.

  25. Carl says :

    FWIW, both the Finnish products I have purchased and used for some time, a Pilot Heart Rate Monitor and a Nokia telephone shared one annoying trait in common: absolutely baffling, almost totally unintuitive user interfaces.

    I am an Apple/Mac user with Mac computers, an iPhone, an iPad, and an iPod and find their user interfaces, while not perfect, to be far more intuitive that my Pilot or Nokia. I have also used Motorola and Erickson phones and their interfaces were halfway between Apple’s and the Finn’s.

    I, personally, will never buy another electronic produce made in Finland. My Nokia was replaced by an iPhone; my Pilot by a Garmin unit. I don’t have a week to play around with the user manual (that’s what it took me to work my way through the menus and sub-menus on my Pilot.)

  26. Chris says :

    Collectively, we simply do not deal well with serious change. Through how many generations do today’s wealthy families extend? Where are the great corporations from one hundred years back? Politically speaking, the USA is an old country by the standards of the world. Change tends to sweep all before it.

    Four years ago the iPhone probably raised laughs within Nokia and now they are raising the white flag. Nokia was too cozy with the telecoms to ever challenge the old walled-garden approach, and they were too wedded to the low end to ever produce a game-changing UI. Time ran out before the behemoth could recognize the threat, work out a strategy and execute. Four years pass more quickly when you build handsets than when you build trains, and Nokia was never going to have the luxury of a multi-decade slow-motion crash like some tech companies from a gentler age.

    We can school managers in how companies function but not in how to generate truly novel ideas or in how to react the day radical change arrives. The kicker is that change rarely surprises us, at least not totally. For how many years did people blather on about convergence before Apple finally lighted the way?

    And how did the competition respond? Google jumped on a me-too strategy and executed it quickly and well, aided by not having any vested interests to defend. RIM deserves praise as the only incumbent still standing, but I for one have doubts about their long-term viability. And as for the rest, Microsoft, Palm and Nokia had all the talent in the world but no chance in hell.

  27. James Katt says :

    QUOTE: they’re, I daresay, not even neurocognitively equipped to do so.

    This says it all.

    From top to bottom, Nokia simply FAILED to anticipate the change in the industry brought by the iPhone. And Nokia FAILED to develop an adequate response once they did. In fact, this calls to a LACK OF TALENT in Nokia.

  28. AG says :

    No, James, it really doesn’t. There’s more than enough talent, just as there’s more than enough infrastructure, budget and wherewithal. What there isn’t is vision.

  29. R. Boot says :

    Nokia might have failed on a lot of things, but sadly it is, and definitely was not, a lack of hired talent.

    Nokia most certainly did not fail to anticipate the change. Likewise, the trend, research and design team(s) invented and delivered many wonderful innovations way ahead of their time. Just look at the small portion published outside the corporation (Youtube: Morph et al). There’s much more left to hide.

    Where they failed was they didn’t get past the visionless middle management looking after their next Q delivery bonus, incredibly slow software platforms (Symbian, I’m looking at you) or management too fixed on success in the developing world (China, India).

    WP7 is a solid choice for now. Far superior to Android. Interesting to see where this develops.

  30. AG says :

    Well, I was with you right up until you said “Morph,” which — aside from redefining vaporware for our age — was badly dated the moment it hit the blogs. “Anticipating” isn’t the same thing as “making up some crazy shit and calling it ‘foresight.'”

  31. Anonymous Coward says :

    Thank you for taking your time to write this blog post. I’ve been a Nokia third-party developer since the the first series of Symbian smartphones. Reading your post and discovering that my frustrations as an outsider trying to support the ecosystem were mirrored internally is, in some strange way, therapeutic.

  32. Sold Nokia shares in 2005 says :

    I started at Nokia in 1997, in America. I left two years ago.
    I personally witnessed four incredible transformations in the Handheld phone business, all initiated by customers:
    1. Analog phone Market Share dominance. 1999. Nokia wins.
    2. Analog to Digital conversion 2000-mid 2003 Nokia wins.
    3. Candy bar style phone to Flip phone “RAZR” conversion. 2004/5. Moto wins.
    4. Voice phone to Smartphone conversion. 2007-2009 Apple/Android wins.
    As Nokia grew larger, so did the bureaucracy and layers of management. In 2007, we predicted Iphone to be a $400, (5% market share) niche. Simple Hubris caused it. Hard work solves it.

  33. Adam says :

    Great post. I feel for you. I’ve seen it in past companies I’ve worked for. They are no longer around. I suspect that Nokia is going to go back to selling boots and cords of wood really soon. Nokia is the past and those running it live in the past and refuse to adapt to an Apple/Andoid world.

  34. Jeremy says :

    As a former Nokian, I’m glad you wrote this. I still recall reading numerous reports on technology and future developments discovered within the company that never made it to the market UNTIL Apple (or Android) realized them. There are still a lot of good people who I hope in this transition will get a chance to step-up…but alas…it seems too many of the old guard are still there.

  35. David says :

    It is Adam’s silo attitude that cause many companies to fail. The industrial engineer has no faith in the engineering designer, and hennce the engineering designer fails to create that that the industrial designer desires. Nokia has many creative engineers, just as it has many managers who will listen. How many people do you honestly know who will turn away a compelling argument? Seriously? Adam, you should be “starting with the man in the mirror” before laying blame at thefeet of others. In two years you could find nobody to believe in you. Maybe your misunderstanding of the thief’s ability to press the “Y” key illustrates why.

  36. Steve says :

    Slmmng yr prvs mplyr whn th r dwn s tck. Y ptd t wrk fr thm nd t snds lk y wr nbl t sccd thr. Mv n. Lf s t shrt t wst nrg gttng prss fr lkng bck n th rrvw mrrr. ts sf t s th mrkt hs cmmnctd wth thr dllrs tht Nk dsnt mk dlghtfl prdcts. Ths s th frst tm v hrd bt y nd smthng tlls m yll nvr d nythng wrth f m hrng bt y vr gn. hp y prv m wrng bcs rght nw y cm crss ngrtfl, rrgnt nd cnfdnt. Jst bld nd shp grt thngs. Lv th rst fr yr mmrs.

    Bad-faith comment edited by admin. As ever, you’re welcome to comment critically, so long as you have the integrity, and the decency, to sign your own name to your contribution.

  37. Texrat the Crypticum Keeper says :

    Brilliant, brilliant analysis and great read. Even as another fellow ex-Nokian I couldn’t say it any better. And I’ve tried. ;)

    Just ignore the complainers who don’t grasp your purpose in writing.

  38. AG says :

    I hope you prove me wrong because right now you come across ungrateful, arrogant and confident.

    On the contrary, Steve, I’m profoundly grateful for all the great fortune I’ve experienced, including the great fortune of working and living in Finland.

    But gratitude is meaningless in the absence of deeds. As I see it, one way of expressing it more concretely is by sharing my experiences, in the sincere hope that others will benefit from them. That’s all I’ve tried to do here, and I’m sorry it left a bad taste in your mouth.

    And to Texrat and all the other Nokians ex- and current who have chimed in, here and elsewhere, with words of support: thank you kindly. You know it was you and all the others in your shoes I had foremost in mind when writing this.

  39. AG says :

    Actually, you know what’s really tacky, Steve? (Or is it “Steve”?) What’s really low-down and indefensible is using someone else’s name and image instead of standing behind your own opinions, like I’ve done here.

    What you really ought to do is apologize, firstly, to Caterina, and then to everyone else who might have seen that comment on GigaOm. But you know I’m not gonna waste any time holding my breath.

  40. enkerli says :

    Are you sure you’re not talking about Google? ;-)

  41. DP says :

    “It still takes one no to kill a hundred yesses”

  42. J. V. says :

    “Finnish design has tutored generations in what taste means.”

    Yes it tutored generations AGO what taste means. Finnish textile firm Marimekko e.g. sells designs that were mostly made in the 60´s.

  43. A Finn says :

    Nitpicking over the vending machine: Nope, I’m not a Nokia person, but have background on Telco sector. My take on the SMS one had to send “Y” is: It was thought as a way of paying for the stuff. For a long time now, there has been premium rate SMS services in Finland, which could be used to even purchase soda from vending machine. My guess is that people just figured they’d use already existing solution of premium rate SMS to get the money from the consumer to the owner of the vending machine.

    I mean: It would have most likely been very easy to create vending machine that will dispense sodas with NFC for free. It’s the billing that is the difficult part.

  44. Heli says :

    My long-term burnout was caused exactly by ‘Nokia is an organization committed to the virtues of engineering rather than those of design.’

  45. AG says :

    J.Y.: Not so, unless I’m imagining the gorgeous Marimekko x Harri Koskinen “Puhdas” fabric I’m looking at. The most iconic Marimekko designs do date to the 1960s, yes, but that fact has neither kept them from innovating nor prevented the brand from building success on designers who weren’t even born yet when those iconic patterns dominated.

  46. sepych says :

    Do you know who is responsible for Nokia UI graphics? This was always biggest mystery to me, how so huge company doesn’t have any good graphics designer.

  47. L says :

    I have done some subcontracting, projects and research with Nokia. I believe you are absolutely correct about your assessment.

    I have been baffled for years about the apparent problems in the senior management of Nokia. Not surprisingly, I have steered my career clear off the company which has taken some effort since I live in Tampere where they have huge amounts of people working for them.

    Talking about design, what great designs has their design guru boss Ahtisaari ever brought to life? How can this guy not see the apparent problems in the user experience and design of the products and still be the boss of design? (Or if he sees the problems but can’t correct them, that’s also a reason to kick him out)

  48. AG says :

    sepych, there are enormously talented graphic designers at Nokia — people the equal of anyone working anywhere in the industry. I mean, these are people who can produce beauty working within the limitations of Nokia’s weak and dated identity system, which is saying a lot.

    Unfortunately, the graphic assets team was managed during my time in Espoo by someone who was either entirely lacking in visual sense or discernment, completely willing to greenlight Windows-grade mediocrity as long as it was the easiest and lowest-energy thing to do, or both.

    This person was not a bad fellow, just an obstacle to design excellence. I fault him personally far less than I do an organization incapable of understanding just how disastrous he was to their competitive prospects. If you’re as far back in the game as Nokia is, and struggling simply to come to parity with iPhone ’97, you simply can’t indulge yourself by tolerating someone like this as a gateway on the critical path.

    L, in my personal opinion Marko Ahtisaari has been served poorly by Nokia. In my conversations with him, he has certainly struck me as being acutely aware of “the problems,” but is structurally incapable of fixing them. Another way of putting it: Hercules himself could not fix them. No one individual could — not without the kind of thorough restructuring that we all know is not going to happen. Beyond whether or not it’s just, holding him personally accountable for the institution’s failure, in the absence of anything more than a reshuffling at the GEB level, simply wouldn’t change anything.

  49. Diogo Almeida says :

    Great post Adam
    I guess that’s why tech start-ups are so valued nowadays – the inertia (and drag) of the big companies that used to be raging young dragons and now they grew and just stay in their cave where it’s safe, guarding the piles of gold.

    Nonetheless, regarding “designers vs engineers / usual vs low probability”, I still think low prob. events should be accounted for, especially if a “user error” is catastrophic. Especially if the user doesn’t know he/she IS a user. I guess that qualifies as catastrophic.
    That’s the usability evaluator in me talking.
    Now I put the “reasonable UX” hat:
    But, please, touching your keitai in a specific place on the vending machine at arm’s height, I assume, it’s the same as accounting for a lighting that may hit the machine inside a building. there’s a limit to low-prob events.

    Diogo, Portugal

  50. Been there says :

    Thanks for the article.

    It’s a bit long-winded but captures Nokia corporative culture quite well. Only at Nokia I witnessed (stupid) re-orgs every 6 months and (bright) engineers being laid off shortly after releasing a “flagship” product.
    Need I say more?

    There is a lot more to say…

  51. fosta says :

    It’s no good having a vision if you don’t follow that vision with a plan.

  52. Tzar says :

    Microsoft is not a small organisation. It’s not noted for the excellence of its UX. It’s usually last into any market. It isn’t cool. At all.

    Yet they can turn it around any time they like.

    They accepted Windows Mobile was dreadful and in 18 months had Windows Phone. It’s swift and elegant. One could almost say the same about Microsoft’s execution of it.

    Perhaps Nokia’s senior management just didn’t have ‘taste’ but they were dreadful system designers too. Microsoft aren’t. Now, who’s your Daddy?

  53. gerard Wiener says :

    Excellent read. Thank you.

  54. Mikko says :

    Since having been involved in NRC’s NFC concept studies as a subcontractor, here’s one more go at the NFC vending machine: reasoning by the SMS sillyness there, I assume it was the machine that (actively) detected the phone’s (passive) RFID tag rather than the phone going on “polling” around continuously just in case a tag comes within an inch of the NFC antenna… Sadly, resulting in its inability to evoke user interaction directly. Getting past the power management must have been the key in this design.

  55. Mikko says :

    Not saying there aren’t plenty of choice when it comes to activating NFC polling, by unlocking phone for example or just pressing a key to turn backlight on. But that’s that.

  56. Anita Wilhelm says :

    I believe a couple of talented folks at Fjord Gmbh were actually responsible for the design of sports tracker. ;)

    Thank you for giving this voice. We all are stronger, wiser, and better because of it.

  57. Brian says :

    Hi Adam,

    Nice write up and thanks for sharing your painful experiences. A reader on my blog highlighted your post in response to one I wrote.

    I believe we are both talking about the same issues at Nokia. Where in my view, these issues highlight the need for Microsoft’s help and hence positive about the tie up.

    But what I am curious was did you have an opportunity as head of design direction for service and user-interface design, to convince the Senior Management the error of their ways?

  58. wirk says :

    While the analysis is good, it overlooks many aspects of the problem.

    Nokia strategy was excellent for many years if one measures with market values: market share, profits, dividends. It was really a mass production behemoth bringing huge value. Lots of competitors were outsmarted by Nokia: all Japanese, Ericsson, Siemens, Motorola to name a few.

    The point about innovations is that they are hard to deal with since they are at the beginning small scale, not very profitable. They are then risky from the point of mass production. This is very well illustrated by the case why Nokia was late with touch displays: it was because they had to launch huge testing and validation program forcing manufacturers to improve reliability to their level of mass production – Nokia could not risk less reliable components just because of the scale and image of the brand.

    Related to this is the problem of processes inside big organizations: by default they must be slower than startups because of the scale of operation and great responsibility for shareholders with everything driven by quarter-to-quarter profits pressure.

    Another issue is the speed of the current change: devices suddenly are not as important, ecosystems are.

    In retrospection then, the fundamental thing which was not done at Nokia was total split of company into ‘ default’ Nokia and Nokia ‘Innovations’. A similar split to the one which happened with divesting Nokia Networks which really helped the Networks to survive and compete in extremely bloody environment.

    Nokia Innovations would compete on the bleeding edge with others, and the default Nokia would the one with present operation.

    This is what Elop is apparently intending to do. The choice of Microsoft is strategically not a bad one since only they are both in the same boat trying to catch up in the ecosystems game and Microsoft strategically endangered by Google. But Microsoft is not an easy partner and there is huge and extremely risky work in getting W7M to the level of the competition.

    In the end, however, it is not extremely bad yet: usually companies like Nokia go deeply into a crisis before the shake-up occurs, only after big losses forcing radical change. In the case of Nokia there is just loss of market share and cash reserves are in the bank.

  59. Marek Pawlowski says :

    Hello Adam – thanks for contributing useful examples to help others understand the complexity of producing easy, engaging experiences in large organisations.

    The reader comments on SportsTracker and models such as the N8 and N95 are revealing.

    As a user of all these, I can’t help but feel Nokia has become adept at producing complex features for niche groups at the expense of the core communications capabilities.

    I consciously sacrificed the user experience of email, calling and web browsing to continue to use SportsTracker on an E71, but eventually returned to my iPhone because it offered a better communications UX and an adequate SportsTracker equivalent.

    Likewise, the N8 has astounding image capture capabilities – for a phone – and tempted the photographer in me. However, eventually it too was discarded to return to the iPhone. It was easier to carry both a dedicated camera and a phone with a good UX than a single phone with a great camera, but poor overall UX.

    I’m now experimenting with the E7. I love having SportsTracker and Maps again, but the apps in which I (and I suspect most others) spend the majority of their time (web, phone, email, messaging) remain frustrating.

    Nokia’s original vision for Series 60 as an efficient and portable platform for a range of devices targeted at specific use cases was logical. However, it failed because central elements of the platform UX were weak. In that scenario, no camera, app or hardware innovation can compensate for the day-to-day frustrations faced in the core experience.

  60. Rebecca Folb says :

    Really interesting read! It’s great to see employees talking about Nokia in an authentic and credible way online.

  61. yorksranter says :

    Since when have Apple sold “interface objects” to “content that resides on the network”? I’m not aware of any Apple product that fits that description other than maybe the new (no HDD) AppleTV.

    Apple’s mobile devices are all about content that you carry around with you, so you actually have it, power consumption is acceptable, the music doesn’t cut out randomly if you walk under a bridge, and you don’t need to worry that $CLOUD_STARTUP is going to run out of VC funding tomorrow and your collection is just going bye bye.

    The iPod’s killer app was the honking great HDD; iPhones tote a great big wedge of Flash storage, essentially an SSD, around. iTunes and Bonjour multicast-DNS sync are ways of getting stuff onto your PC and then onto all your other stuff.

    I note that Nokia was still shipping sub-GB SD cards with top end smartphones as late as the E71 (mine came with a 200MB micro-SD – what’s the point of that?

  62. o_O; says :

    How does the picture of Israel’s flags is connected with this article…?

  63. AG says :

    Um…what country is Nokia based in, again? And what does that country’s flag look like?

  64. FinallyFast says :

    This was a really great gathering of thoughts. I love how you describe the difference between organization in a large company vs. working for ones self. Large corporations can be amazing at not wanting to change.

  65. Barry Houldsworth says :

    A very nice read – thank you.

    Having run my own company several times (and currently doing it again) I certainly concur with your observations. There is something about the “eat what you kill” lifestyle that drives one to give their all and feel real pride of ownership.

    The agility that comes with this is certainly welcome – albeit often limited by your client. But I believe the greatest gift is that when you take risks they are YOUR risks – which means you can evaluate when moving faster, or trying something new, is worth it.

    For companies wishing to break new ground failure is not only an option, it is a requirement.

    You comment of “engineers are taught a kind of rigor that compels them to account for, and overweight, low-probability events” is true, but not always. In small companies, engineers – freed from the fear of failure instilled by large corporations – are often the ones on the bleeding edge.

    Enjoy your new found freedom and congratulations on being freshly pressed.

  66. Phil Lindberg says :

    Essential curriculum for the school of (work) life.

    Clarity of purpose is a devil to get right, but plowing headlong into product without it is folly. A “what” without a “why” is nothing. Nothing to speak of anyway.

    Thanks Adam. Great learning, garnished with humility.

  67. I Made You A Mixtape says :

    I am not a Nokia person but your comment on Nokia’s corporate culture being a hindrance on any sort of progressive/inventive thought did resonate with me… I am a Finn and that seems to be a Finnish way in a lot of things- we seem to be our own worst enemies. Granted, I have not lived there since 1991, but some things never seem to change.

  68. Cec says :

    Absolutely brilliant read.

    Funny, most of the problems you described with the Nokia corporate structure are exactly the same as those of Microsoft, the company they recently got in bed with.

    They exhibit the same blind partiality towards products that scale versus true innovation; the same ham-fisted decisions to approve ridiculous projects (Kin) and kill off brilliant ones (Courier). With the possible exception of their Entertainment and Devices Division, innovative ideas coming from their massive R&D investments seem to be routinely shot down.

    It makes one wonder how wise was the decision to adopt MS’s mobile OS, given the fact that they suffer from the same woes. To their credit, WP7 comes from the E&DD, the one division of Microsoft’s that has any kind of clue of what user experience innovation means.
    I wish Nokisoft the best though. God knows their competition is needed in this market.

    I also wonder, is it just utterly impossible for a global corporation to move as nimbly and innovate as much as a startup? How does Apple do it? Is their success an exception due only because of Steve Jobs’s iron-fisted dictatorship?

  69. AI says :

    Excellent post. If the posting resonated with you, I highly recommend two books:
    – The Design of Business:
    – Origin of Wealth: Evolution, Complexity, and the Radical Remaking of Economics:

  70. AG says :

    Cec, you probably won’t be surprised that I had intense feelings of deja vu when I heard that Steve Ballmer had killed Courier. Courier struck me as a truly visionary piece of work, and the only device with a tablet form-factor that could possibly give iPad a run for its money.

    Everything would’ve hinged on its running something other than Windows, of course. But I remember seeing the first mockups and thinking mmmm — which is difficult for me, given the feelings I have about Microsoft. I was shocked when they laid the big smash on it, but not surprised. If that makes any sense.

    By the way, remind me to tell you-all the Connected Computer story, sometime. Now that was a gemlike case study in how clueless middle managers can methodically and deliberately value-engineer all the daring, vision and novelty out of a project, until all that remains is a solid but utterly unremarkable exercise in me-tooism.

  71. JW says :

    I’d like to echo your sentiments on Nokia Sports Tracker. What a wonderful idea it was, and brilliantly implemented. Very well ahead of its time. Its sad that its now gone. The least they could have done was open source it, so others could improve upon it.

  72. The Rhyming Med Student says :

    Thanks for the insight. Project Perry’s a great idea. It has that sense of mundane futurism that the NFC vending machine failed to capture so badly.

  73. cec says :


    Indeed, I too was awestruck at the fact that an idea so fresh and revolutionary could have come from a company such as MS. I was also not surprised, not at all, when we all finally heard the news that Ballmer had canned it.

    In this interview with TechCrunch, in September of ’09 (before the Courier project had been discontinued), while describing/defending Microsoft’s strategy in the mobile space, Ballmer elucidated precisely what we’re talking about: Like Nokia, Microsoft is solely concerned with having a presence in markets that allow extremely high volume sales.

    Which is a shame, in both Nokia’s and Microsoft’s cases, because their extremely broad reach and dominant positions in their respective markets gives them the responsibility to be the ones to catalyze innovation, disrupt and create new market opportunities.

    This will never happen as long as business types with zero taste or even genuine passion towards technology (and not just corporate lackeys concerned only with keeping shareholders happy) continue to be the ones that make the decisions that kill innovative projects and ensure the continuation of the status quo.

    Which is to say it will never happen.

  74. AG says :

    I think you’re getting close to the real core of the issue here. My distinct impression was that there was nobody in senior management at Nokia who really used mobile Web services, let alone lived, breathed and loved them.

    Now that I reflect on it, it’s that lack of passion, even more so than any absence of taste, that really bothers me. Taste, well, famously non disputandum est, despite anything I might think. But to lack any passion for what you yourself have identified as your company’s core offering? Unforgivable.

    Ballmer, of course, constitutes his own mortifying chapter in the history of mediocrity elevated above its station.

  75. Mike Ash-ton says :

    Nokia has got similar critique and proposals 1-2 years ago:

    How to keep Nokia independent Booklet 11th Feb 2011:

    Click to access _011_nokia_rescue_booklet_risku_v-1.pdf

    There are so many incompetent people in Nokia´s Board and GEB that any strategy is going to fail like since 2004. Mr. Ahtisaari as design leader is a problem: Chico Marx mentoring Leonardo da Vinci. Every weak leader and simpleton is eaten for breakfast at MS when they take the governance.


  76. Jaime says :

    I love debates like this one, because they operate in the normative, where everyone can pretend like they are experts with clear insight and foresight. But this debate is missing one central point: A person, or a company, can only do what they can do. Nothing more, nothing less.

    Every company is really an organism, with a DNA, a culture, strengths & weaknesses. I am really good at many things, I am really bad at others. Take dancing…I am not very good at that. If my job suddenly requires me to be a good dancer, my response should not be to try to become a better dancer. I will never win that battle as I don’t have that talent. I need to find a universe, a job that values what I am good at, not try to be something I am not. What’s my point?

    Adam correctly identifies the thing, the zeitgeist, the DNA of Nokia. Scale based production of commodity products. It’s amazing to me how many people responding to this blog look down at that skill as somehow beneath them, or beneath Nokia. Too low brow. If Nokia is at fault for anything, it is for understanding what it is good at and sticking to its core principles.

    As one responder correctly identified, what Apple recognized was the potential to make content accessible and portable. The iPhone is in fact, not a very good phone. From a weak antenna to AAPL’s choice of AT&T as a partner, it was clear Apple didn’t care about the phone part of the iPhone. They played to another market phenomenon that valued what they were good at, ecosystems and design. It just so happens that they could build those ecosystems and beautiful software and product design on the cellular network, which meant their products also made for phones. The iPod is the real transformation. The iPod on a cell network simply becomes the iPhone. But it never started out trying to be a phone.

    Nokia managers are smart to not try and beat Apple at Apple’s game. They will never win. Anymore than Apple will ever accomplish what Nokia could accomplish, which is mass produced cheap phones. I would submit that in the developing world, “dumb” phones will dominate for a very long time. And there is nothing wrong with that.Wal Mart doesn’t try to be Louis Vuitton, nor vice versa. They each profit from and represent different parts of the market. There is room for both. And neither is better or worse, they are different and both can make boatloads of money. Apple will never produce a $50 version of their device to make it accerssible to the majority of the worlds population. And that’s where Nokia can, and I bet will, focus.

    Let me be the only person on here to say good for you Nokia – stick to your principles and be honest about what you do well. And then execute the hell out of that approach. Don’t pretend you are what you are not. It never works.

  77. leadinglight says :

    Interesting write-up. I do hope Nokia has a focus on what its consumers want, not what they feel consumers want. Were the people from the upper echelons of management showed the potential and application of the products that were created by the designers and engineers in a way that catered to their own tastes? Perhaps that could have broadened the core target market.

  78. Jaime says :

    I should have added the following two points:

    What Nokia should never have done is hired someone like Adam and then tortured him for two years pretending it would ever value or fully utilize his skills. That is a clear case of overreaching and being intellectually dishonest about who you are and what you do.

    Secondly, Adam should never have accepted a job at Nokia. Anyone looking to take a job needs to look no further than how companies budget, and how they measure their financials for the truth in to what they value and what they will do. Companies value what they measure, and they fund what they value.All too often people are taken by the promises of a hiring manager, the vision for their remit, and they don’t bother to investigate how the company measures profit. We can argue whether this should or shouldn’t be, and I won’t do that here. But the truth of a for profit company is it manages against its numbers, and how it manages against those numbers tell you everything you ever need to know about what it will and won’t do. And companies get in trouble when they try to do more than that. And then we as employees bitch and moan that our managers just don’t get it. Our executives just don’t get it. Its we who doesn’t get it. Its we who don’t understand what our company values, and cares about, and wishes it weren’t so. Who are we to hate on Nokia for just being Nokia?

  79. AG says :

    Jaime, you may well be right, but I’d challenge you to resist when someone knocks on your door and offers you that job title and the number that goes along with it.

    As well, it wasn’t “Nokia” making the offer, but a good friend (who remains a good friend). You take a job because you want to work with specific people, not because you’re satisfied with the latest 10-Qs. At least, I’m willing to bet that this is how most designerly folks think.

  80. Cec says :

    While the only thing truly inexcusable about the leaders of these mammoth global entities is their lack of authentic passion, taste and passion both go hand in hand in creating truly special products.

    Take Bill Gates for example: As someone who truly believed in technology and software as a way to improve the world, he is certainly missed as the head of MS, but he too had succumbed to corporate pressures and, in the absence of good taste, (with a few exceptions), led MS into creating woefully underwhelming offerings.

    In order for these huge companies to make something truly revolutionary, they need someone at the helm with both passion and good taste, as well as the tenacity and foresight to go out on a limb and take risks, regardless of the shareholders’ short-sighted whims.

  81. Mobile Observer says :

    Jaime, the $50-$100 Android handsets are coming so I don’t think there’s lot of time for the dumbphones except in the poorest areas.

  82. micahtan says :


    “Which is a shame, in both Nokia’s and Microsoft’s cases, because their extremely broad reach and dominant positions in their respective markets gives them the responsibility to be the ones to catalyze innovation, disrupt and create new market opportunities.”

    To be fair to Microsoft, if it had used its “broad reach” and “dominant position” to do what Apple did, namely build a phone based on a closed-end music/app store experience, it would have suffered the same free-market competition questions that hounded it in the early 2000’s. Apple is starting to hit those issues now.

    Sometimes disruption, due to competitive legislation, is necessarily driven by those without reach.

  83. AG says :

    micahtan, those aren’t my words. I don’t believe that any hegemonic institution, commercial or otherwise, is obliged to innovate; it would all too often be suicidal. “An institution will attempt to preserve the problem to which it is the solution,” and no more than that.

  84. micahtan says :


    My mistake — and incidentally, completely agree with what institutions tend to do.

  85. AG says :

    [Quick note, if you intend to leave a comment: As usual, I welcome your criticism of me, however harsh, but do require that if you wish to do so you leave a verifiable name. Have the integrity to stand by your words, or say them somewhere else.]

  86. choose a smartphone says :

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Trackbacks / Pingbacks

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  5. tmp | CactuarJ's NotePad - 21 February 2011
  6. Former Nokia Designer: Nokia Bosses Have No Taste: Tech News and Analysis « - 21 February 2011
  7. Natural design v engineering tension | talkable likeable - 21 February 2011
  8. Former Head of Design Discusses Where Nokia Went Wrong - SlashGear - 21 February 2011
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  11. So when did the passion die? « excapite - 21 February 2011
  12. O'Reilly Radar - 22 February 2011
  13. Richard Wilkinson » Blog Archive » Cultuire at Nokia… - 22 February 2011
  14. Black Phoebe :: Ms. Jen - 23 February 2011
  15. Former Nokia Designer Adam Greenfield Has His Say – ArcticStartup - 23 February 2011
  16. Designers versus engineers | Unchecked Exceptions - 23 February 2011
  17. Por que a Nokia errou ao escolher quantidade, e não qualidade | Gizmodo Brasil - 23 February 2011
  18. Nokia: Culture Will Out | Gizmodo Australia - 23 February 2011
  19. E-inking a smarter card | richards, chris - 23 February 2011
  20. François Nonnenmacher (EN) - 25 February 2011
  21. If Nokia is a bureaucracy, and Microsoft is a political party, then what are Apple and Google? | The Rivals: Apple, Microsoft, and Google: a book - 28 February 2011
  22. This Ain’t Your Parent’s Future - 4 April 2011
  23. മീഗോയുടെ ഭാവി « ശാസ്ത്രകൗതുകം - 5 June 2011
  24. #Mobile phones are no longer communication devices. They’re now "interface objects." | benjamin junior - 20 September 2011
  25. 7 rules for Interface control « yonisblog - 7 January 2012
  26. Culture « Richpageant - 13 January 2012
  27. "Nokia has no taste" | - 27 April 2013
  28. Ex capo design di Nokia: “Prigionieri di economia di scala e burocrazia” - - 13 May 2013
  29. Ex capo design di Nokia: ‘€œPrigionieri di economia di scala e burocrazia’€ - - 11 June 2013
  30. Nokia: Culture will out « Adam Greenfield's Speedbird | - 6 November 2014
  31. yonisblog - 4 March 2015
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