During the closing arguments of Apple's patent lawsuit against Samsung, Harold McElhinney, lead counsel for Apple, contended that design innovation was indeed happening outside Cupertino, notably with Nokia's Lumia device series. "Every smartphone does not have to look like an iPhone," he said, displaying pictures for the jury of Lumia and other smartphones, which were intended to show the lack of innovation happening at Samsung.
The Lumia 900, with its polycarbonate unibody and bold cyan colors, was one of the most compelling alternatives to the iPhone when it hit market, and today, Nokia unveiled its latest iteration: the Lumia 920. Featuring a 4.5-inch curved glass display, inductive charging and NFC functionality, as well as Windows Phone 8, Nokia's newest flagship is proof there is life beyond iPhone, as McElhinney had argued. "I saw [his] quote, and I was like, 'Thank you,'" says Marko Ahtisaari, executive VP of design at Nokia, with a smile. "The best way to respect competition is to do something meaningfully better that's different—not different for the sake of being different, but something that's meaningfully different and a new expression."
With Apple's $1 billion patent-infringement victory over Samsung, device makers across the industry are likely reassessing their approaches to hardware design. But while some believe the trial's outcome could spark widespread industry innovation, others argue that forced differentiation does not equate with innovation—it could lead to "different and dumb," as my colleague Kyle Vanhermert put it.
Ahtisaari agrees that different is not always better but sees opportunity in the lack of differentiation currently in the market. "You look out there, and it's a sea of black and gray and occasionally white devices with rounded corners," he says. "That's what the market is right now: hugely competitive but a lot of stuff that just looks the same."
For the Lumia 920, he thought, "Can we make an expression that's modern and new?" His design team pushed to refine the device's polycarbonate body, add wireless charging capability, and create an aesthetic that meshed well with Microsoft's metro design language of Windows 8, colors and all. "I think we've done [something modern and new]...and Apple's lawyers seem to agree," Ahtisaari quips.
But Ahtisaari stresses that Nokia is not being different for the sake of being different. "We're a company that's turning around and design is playing a big role in that," he says. "You build a recognizable identity for products over time, and you evolve and refine that."
He adds, "It's not, 'Next month we'll make a trapezoidal [device]!' We're not thinking that way."