Since Nokia announced it was going to leap off its “burning platform” and into the arms of Microsoft, there have been plenty of arguments about whether the link between the two companies is going to work or not. Even here on GigaOM there’s been some division: I argued that two wrongs don’t make a right, while we also heard that it could be good news for developers.
Most of this analysis has come from those who are outside Nokia — or at the very least, those who have been outside it for some time. But now a senior figure has weighed in with a stinging critique: Adam Greenfield, Nokia’s former head of design direction for user interfaces and services.
When Greenfield quit the Finnish firm in 2010 to set up his own design practice in New York, he made no secret of his frustrations with Nokia. But in a long and fascinating post on his personal blog, he has now outlined what problems Nokia faces.
Overall, his observations aren’t that different from what the rest of the world has pointed out: Nokia’s been used to dealing with scale; its culture is dominated by engineers who don’t understand how the world has moved on from their early work; it has lost momentum, and so on.
But he illustrates his points with some very specific examples from his two years trying to turn things around. Take this one, on the promise of using your phone to pay for things simply with a swipe:
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.
When I arrived at Nokia, the folks down the road at [Nokia research] 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. […]
Except that, as realized by Nokia, this is precisely what failed to happen. […] 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 fair to say that this is a problem inside many technology companies, since the impact of design is harder to quantify and less measurable than pure engineering. It doesn’t stop something working, but it can stop something working well. Talk to designers at many of the world’s top technology brands and you might hear similar gripes.
But when it comes to Nokia’s failings here, Greenfield punches hard. Essentially, he says ” there’s nobody with any taste in the decision-making echelons at Nokia”, something which he notes is particularly ironic considering Finland’s wider reputation for style and innovative design culture. It’s a tale that many of us have seen — but coming from somebody who only left the company last year, it carries a weight all of its own.
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