Nokia Keeps Its Eye On The Ball, Puts Design Front And Center

Analysts often talk about the growth of the smartphone market based on which software OS is selling the best, but there is another way to look at what is working: the design of the device.

An emphasis on the latter came up twice today: in an article about Nokia (NYSE: NOK), in which Maarko Ahtisaari, the company’s head designer, makes the case for a how a new focus on form will drive the next stage of the company’s growth; and in some new figures from Juniper Research, which says that touchscreen-only devices will account for more than 70 percent of smartphones by 2016.

Nokia’s new emphasis on design, described in a story in the WSJ, is not too surprising, given that (a) the article is based on an interview with a designer; and (b) Nokia has, of late, turned away from in-house platform innovation and opted instead to use Microsoft’s Windows Phone 7 software.

Still, it does show how Nokia is trying to turn around a culture that has made more than one bad choice in phone design, which has likely contributed to some of its decline in the market.

Among them was a delay in offering its first touchscreen devices in response to the iPhone and Android handsets — Nokia’s first of these, the Xpress Music 5800, only started to hit the market in Q1 2009, a year and a half after the iPhone launched. It also didn’t help that these devices were largely based on Nokia’s legacy Symbian OS.

(To be fair, Nokia didn’t ignore the touchscreen as a concept before then: a spokesperson for the company points out to me that the first of these, the 7710 model, came out in 2004.)

The focus on design and hardware features is not to be underestimated when looking at smartphones. New numbers out from Juniper Research predict that by 2016, smartphone shipments will reach 700 million devices — up from 302 million in 2010. Within that, it notes touchscreen devices will be the best sellers, accounting for 72 percent of devices. Figures out from ABI are even more optimistic: 93 percent of all smartphones will have touchscreens by 2016, it predicts. Other features that will hallmark the smartphone market of the future: 3D, which will show up in 80 million devices; and biometric capabilities.

Will a new focus on design keep Nokia from making a bad decision again? Not clear yet, but there are some encouraging notes here. These days, says Ahtisaari, Nokia is looking to simplify the form of its devices and focus on details that encourage users to keep their heads up and make more “eye contact” and be less immersed in what is happening on their screens. It’s not clear from the article what exactly more “eye contact” will mean in terms of the handsets but it’s likely that Nokia will try to make it quicker for users to move from one application to another.

The article is also the clearest sign yet that the MeeGo-based N9 device, which has had good reviews but is going to see a very limited release worldwide, is not disappearing altogether: some of the features that we’ve seen in that handset, Ahtisaari says, will be used in other Nokia devices. These include the multi-colored polycarbonate exterior, the curved screen and a button-free face.

The last of these, the button-free interface, may be some time in coming, though, because as Elop noted in a video earlier this year where he shows off a “Sea Ray” Nokia Windows phone (embedded below), the Mango iteration of the OS was not designed to work on a key-free handset.