Nokia, Apple, experience and the near future

As we get ready to explore Pathways to a future mobile UX horizon at the next MEX in a couple of weeks, I’ve been watching current industry developments with interest. Here’s what I think of it all. I’d love to hear your feedback:

Nokia showed what it has been working on since the deal with Microsoft: the Lumia 920 and 820. While we’ve already seen several Nokia products running Windows Phone (800, 710, 900 and 610), this launch was more significant: these are the first devices where Nokia has added its own twist to the Windows Phone formula.

Both have the ingredients of good mobile experience: colour choices, smart accessories – like speakers which pair over NFC and charge the phone wirelessly, as well as Nokia’s impressive maps and navigation, including – crucially – the ability to route without connection to the internet.

The 920 goes further still. Of particular note is the clarity of the display, sporting 1280 x 768 pixels in a 4.5 inch physical size, embellished with Nokia’s in-house wizardry to make blacks darker and ensure text doesn’t blur when scrolling. The camera also has motion stabilisation so it will usually take a better photo than competitors with a similar number of megapixels.

However, two questions were left unanswered: when will customers be able to buy one and how much will it cost?

For all the achievements of Nokia’s engineers, these two factors still have the biggest influence on customer experience. The absence of either suggests Nokia is beholden on the one hand to Microsoft delays with the next version of Windows Phone, and on the other to the holiday season promotions of the US carriers it is hoping will range the new Lumias.

Several days after a steep fall in its share price and repeated demands for clarification, the company’s official response is unchanged, but it has started hinting through leaks it might be November in some parts of the world. The price, however, remains under wraps.

For all the lip service paid to their ‘special relationship’, Microsoft stressed that the Nokia demonstrations would not show the full capabilities of Windows Phone 8 and that it would be holding its own launch later in the year. It seems Microsoft is rather less concerned about keeping Nokia happy now that a court ruling is making Windows Phone a more attractive Android alternative for Samsung and HTC. Samsung announced its own Windows Phone device last week, HTC is poised to show its products later in September.

This leaves me with another unanswered question: which parts of the Lumia 920 and 820 user experience couldn’t have been achieved with Nokia’s abandoned Meego OS? The Lumia 920 design ID is derived from the Meego-powered N9, while almost all of the unique Nokia software additions to Windows Phone were already available on Meego.

Nokia surrendered strategic control of its OS at a time when keeping it in-house would have enabled it to create vertically integrated experiences across all the digital touchpoints in users’ lives. Now it must bargain with Microsoft to include these features in the OS and, if they’re agreed, wait for it to implement them.

The result is Nokia is 18 – 24 months behind where it could have been with Meego, and lumbered with the ill-will of customers who bought its first generation Windows Phone devices only to be told they had purchased a non-upgradeable stop-gap while Microsoft finished the re-write of Windows Phone 8.

It didn’t help that Nokia was also found out for faking the Lumia 920 video footage used to provide evidence of its camera superiority.

Overall, the 920 and 820 look like they’d offer a good mobile experience, applicable to a broad set of mid-range customers. However, relatively few people will ever find that out. They’ll sell in limited numbers, primarily to existing Nokia customers and those who get an attractive enough deal from an incentivised carrier.

This will be due in no small part to the events of next week, when Apple will announce the next iPhone. Not only will it attract more user attention, it will be priced and in the shops sooner than the Lumias.

Price and shipping might not seem like the traditional remit of a user experience team, but they should be.

Our daily conversations with users uncovered no-one, outside of those working in tech, who knew about this week’s Lumia launch. In contrast, about 1 in 2 know Apple is launching a new iPhone.

5 years after the launch of the first iPhone, products from Nokia, Samsung, Sony and LG still reflect a misunderstanding of why Apple’s product appeals. The industry employs the term ‘user experience’ more extensively today than it did then, but it still seems to refer to a collection of technologies, albeit packaged with dumbed down language, and a veneer of design tweaks to tailor for the misinformed notion of user segments.

What the iPhone does better, and the new one will do better still, is provide an experience that most of the time, for most tasks, just works. It doesn’t have the fastest processor, the largest screen or the most capable camera. Instead its style, availability, support, ability to get things done, keep users entertained and do a bit more than they did with their old phone add up to an intangible package which most users will find preferable to most competing products.

If you look at it from a customer perspective, there’s no mystery to the success of the iPhone: it fits your life better. It only seems mysterious when you can’t understand why someone would choose a slower processor, smaller screen and fewer megapixels. The mystery comes from measuring the wrong metrics and, indeed, trying to measure intangibles which can’t be calculated in a spreadsheet.

I’d love to hear your thoughts on this. Hope to see you at MEX.


Add yours
  1. 1
    Alastair Somerville

    But does better user experience of Apple just get crushed by pure weight of numbers of Android? Rather like VHS/Betamax, quality is irrelevant when people sub optimise their experience for better cash value?

    There’s already a view that Apple is a ‘parent’ phone compared to Android (and even BlackBerry BBM service).

  2. 2
    Marek Pawlowski

    Both, of course, have their merits for different types of users (not to mention the many merits of other platforms like Windows Phone and Blackberry).

    However, I don’t think even quite a significant disparity between the number of iOS and Android installs will ‘crush’ Apple any time soon.

    This only becomes a concern for iOS users, and Apple as a company, if the opportunity in 3rd party software and accessories for a specific group of Android devices starts to significantly outweigh that in iOS. Then there is a danger 3rd party innovators would start to re-direct resources to developing for those Android products. As such, there would be fewer interesting things users could do with their iOS devices in the future.

    As it stands, with the fragmentation of Android-powered devices, that doesn’t seem likely any time soon. While, in theory, a developer can reach a higher number of potential customers creating an app or accessory for ‘Android’, the reality is most still prioritise iOS because the actual customer base (i.e. people willing and able to buy) is higher. In this sense, there isn’t really an ‘Android base’ – it is a term used by the industry, but doesn’t mean much to users, who could be on an anything from an Android 2.1-powered Samsung Galaxy Europa with a 320 x 480 screen and no data plan, versus someone with an Android 4.0 Motorola RAZR Maxx on an unlimited tariff.

  3. 4

    Just a brief comment re: “Apple just get crushed by pure weight of numbers of Android”:

    True, Android powered phones outnumber iOS ditto. Yet, traffic from iOS devices dominate most metrics. Based on the data I have access to, the combined traffic from iOS and Android originates as a rule of thumb from 2/3 iOS, 1/3 Android – be it page views or app downloads.

    So, as Marek points out, this is why iOS as a platform is so attractive to any kind of content supplier.

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