Marko Ahtisaari spreads out several models of Nokia’s new smartphone with the self-assurance of a Tiffany diamond salesman. It is several weeks before the launch of Nokia’s Lumia 920 — the flagship phone for Microsoft’s Windows Phone 8 platform, a crucial product for both companies — and the head of Nokia design has come to New York City to reveal his wares in advance of today’s glitzy event.
There they are, shiny colored polymer bars fronted by bold 4.7-inch Gorilla Glass screens. Good looking, to be sure. Ahtisaari, who heads Nokia’s design studio, picks up a canary yellow one. Others are black, gloss red and matte gray. His face is all business, but his fingertips caress the surface like a lover’s.
“Our products are human,” he says. “They’re natural. They’re never cold. That’s partly driven by color, but also partly how they feel in the hand. This looks less like a product coming off a production line in a factory — though it does—than a product that might have grown on a tree. The grandest way I could put it, is post-industrial.”
Ahtisaari eventually ticks off some other features that he hopes will draw customers to the Nokia phone. Windows 8 software, of course, with the status and activity tiles that provide information at a glance. Well-integrated mapping and location applications, including an augmented-reality layer called City Lens. Wireless charging. Near Field Communications (NFC) technology, not used for yet another payment scheme, but quick and reliable connections for activities like streaming music to a speaker.
But all of these, he says, are part of a general overall vision where advanced function is blended into unforgettable form — post-industrial form. The dream, if not the exact language, is very familiar. Nokia is marketing its phone directly into the teeth of Apple’s strength: design.
I first met Ahtisaari on a visit to Finland last spring. I wasn’t writing about Nokia, but felt that my credentials as a tech writer would be revoked if I didn’t check out the country’s signature electronics company. So I arranged a visit.
It was an interesting time for Nokia, in the sense of that Chinese curse. After many years as a seemingly invincible global power, Nokia was facing dismal financial results, announcing layoffs, and generally projecting noises that sounded to some analysts as death gurgles. CEO Stephen Elop was a Microsoft export who had cast Nokia’s fate with his former employer by choosing Windows 8 as a future platform, and though reviews were solid, sales weren’t impressive. The fate of the company seemed to cast a gloom over the entire nation.
I had lunch in the giant atrium of its headquarters building, a gorgeous structure with a rustic, solid wood-based theme. Though it couldn’t have been more different decor-wise than the sleek austerity of Sony’s headquarters in Tokyo, the casual luxury of the Nokia building did remind me of that other company that symbolized the style and enterprise of a nation. A company also befuddled by hard times.
The highlight of my visit to Nokia was a session with Ahtisaari, invariably referred to at work as simply Marko, like Pele or Madonna. Wisp-like and articulate – he casts kind of a David Byrne vibe, but warmer – he swept into a conference room with the confidence of someone who can make lightning-quick assessments that enable him to strike just the right tone for his audience.
He filled me in on his background. He studied economics, philosophy and music composition at Columbia University, getting a bachelor’s and masters, then a teaching post there. It was around the time of the early web, and he became a pioneer in web design, starting a consultancy in the field. At the same time he was playing bass at outposts like the Knitting Factory. (At one point he won a Grammy Showcase Award.) In the early 2000s he returned to his home country to join Nokia, then left after a few years to become an entrepreneur. In late 2009, he rejoined Nokia — it had acquired Dopplr, a company he co-founded – this time as the head of design.
Any Finn taking a high post at a troubled Nokia is surrounded by pressure because the entire country’s self-esteem is wrapped up in the company’s fate. “Finland is a manic-depressive nation both by weather, and by its relationship to Nokia,” says Ahtisaari. “The noise level is high, but my work is to lead the studio — I don’t even read that much [about the company’s troubles.]” But for biographical reasons, Ahtisaari has an extra measure of stress. His father is perhaps the country’s most famous politician, a former president and recipient of the 2008 Nobel Peace Prize. “In a sense, I’m the Chelsea Clinton of Finland,” he says. “But I have never treated Nokia as a national project — just as something to make great products for people and make accessible technology around the world.” When things get tough, though, he does the Finnish thing and jumps into “a hole in the ice,” he says. “If you have any sad thoughts about the industry, you forget about them once you’re in there.”
His first order of business was energizing the culture of his team — it was apparently suffering from the same sort of drift as the rest of Nokia — and raising its importance in the company so that design became central to all product decision-making. While some observers thought that Nokia was left behind in the smartphone wars, and questioned Elop’s decision to cast Nokia’s fate with the unproven Microsoft Windows phone platform, Ahtisaari believed that there was still plenty of opportunity for a comeback.
“As a product area, smart phones are almost so over-covered that sometimes there’s a feeling that the core innovation in design is almost done,” he says. “Actually nothing can be further than the truth.”
The analogy he supplies is that of the auto industry. In the 1890s, he says, cars were steered by tillers, like rudders on small boats. Over the next couple of decades, ideas were exposed to the marketplace and ultimately a standard emerged, with steering wheels and gearshifts. “I think that we’re in the middle of that period,” he says.
Apple offers one path for design, he explains, with apps and folders, and Android is a variation of that, with multiple home screens. And now there’s this third option, involving live tiles that give real-time, at-a-glance information about the applications lurking beneath. “It’s another take on completely solving all the things that smartphones need to do,” he says.
Think about that auto analogy. Can he be saying that the iPhone approach will one day be as absurd as a rudder on a car? As they say in Finland, yikes.
Whether Apple is remembered that way or not, Nokia and Ahtisaari in their efforts to develop an original third option for smartphones had outsourced some control to Microsoft. Unlike Apple, with its “whole-widget” approach, Nokia would have to collaborate with Microsoft to make the Windows software smoothly integrate with Nokia’s handset.
One of the first meetings of the respective design teams took place in a London restaurant. Ahtisaari suspected the pairing of companies would work because just as he had developed a new product design philosophy for Nokia, Microsoft’s design guru Albert Shum (who had previously worked at Nike) had performed a reset with the Metro user interface, which Ahtisaari considers groundbreaking in its mobile-first approach. It indeed turned out that Nokia’s smartphone vision was a separated-at-birth sibling of the Metro design philosophy. There was general agreement that the crisp tiles of Metro would resonate with the smoothed rectangle of Nokia’s phone body. “It was a one-to-one mapping,” he says.
The two teams embarked on a co-evolutionary design process. Microsoft’s Shum says, “We work together like peanut butter and jam.” Besides, he adds, “if you’re a design geek you appreciate the tradition of Finland and Nokia.” When asked to describe the joint design language they settled on, Shum seems to have consulted the same dictionary as Ahtisaari — the one that’s probably been in Apple’s design studio for ages. “Honest, authentic, familiar, approachable,” he says. “Warm. Delightful.”
An example of the way the two teams worked is the color coding that’s reflected in both software and hardware. Ahtisaari is a fanatic about color. Microsoft made sure that the colors that Nokia chose are reflected in the user’s screen as well. “We spent a lot of time matching the colors,” says Shum. “For instance, the highlighted text in e-mail is the same color as the pigment of the phone. It takes a lot of work to do that — it not only has to match, it has to be readable.”
Now it’s ready for the critics, if not shipping yet. But already Ahtisaari has gotten one review for his work that has pleased him immensely. Last month, at the Apple-Samsung patent trial, the Apple attorney approvingly held up a Nokia Lumia — the pre-Windows 8 predecessor to the 920 – and said, “Not every smartphone needs to look like an iPhone.” Ahtisaari couldn’t agree more.
“Nothing else looks like this in a phone store,” he says of the 920. “It’s very, very, very organic. It’s almost super-organic, the way it’s sculpted and tapered at the ends, its pillowy back. But [it’s] one polycarbonate mono-body, with inherently polymer colors. And this 2-D sculpted Gorilla Glass flows beautifully into the body. We assemble it like putting a ship into a bottle, essentially snapping it into place.”
He talks a great game, and fondles an impressive product. But certainly Ahtisaari knows that by focusing on design, he is taking on the lofty emperors of design at Apple. And it can’t be lost on him that just as Apple is the world’s wealthiest company, Nokia is struggling for its life. But if Ahtisaari is intimidated, he’s not showing it. Asked about Apple, he says, “The best way you can show respect for competition is to do something meaningfully better.” And if all else fails, there’s always that hole in the ice.