Editorial

The future of Windows Phone design in Microsoft's hands as Nokia passes the torch

In my book Windows Phone has a few things going for it. First of all the refreshing Modern UI, which some people hate, but I find to be playful, functional and beautiful. Secondly: high-quality, beautiful devices from the likes of Nokia and even HTC which attract the eyes of consumers with their colors and style. However there are some indications that all of this might change in the near future and not for the better.

I’m not referring to the operating system UI, which Microsoft has made quite clear that it’s committed to. Yes, Modern as a design language has become the Redmond’s company primary focus going forward, integrating it in all of their products, like the recently launched Xbox One, and Windows 8. The multi-colored live-tiled interface is here to stay and that for one makes me happy.

What I’m referring to is the hardware side. Things might soon shift back towards the colorless slabs of glass and metal that were, and still are in large part, the de facto standard of smartphone and tablet design.

Windows Phone 7 launch line-up. Can you spot the difference?

If we go back to 2010, when Windows Phone first launched, you might remember that the original line-up of devices had pretty much the same look and feel to them. Whether it was the HTC Mozart, or the Samsung Omnia 7 or even the Dell Venue Pro with its physical keyboard, all the devices were pretty much the same. Sure, some had rounder corners, other had straight ones and the phones differed somewhat in terms of internals but from a user’s point of view they were all the same plastic slab with a screen thrown on top.

Going a bit further we can easily say that all smartphones back then looked like that. Following Apple’s sterile iPhone design codes, which it had adopted years earlier for the iPod and Mac devices, all companies churned out black, uninspiring handsets. Yes, some of them could be rather beautiful, especially when they were the original design and not copycats. The iPhone 4 as well as some HTC handsets are good examples of this but the market quickly got saturated with the same design being rehashed over and over again by all the OEMs.

The Nokia Lumia 900 - cyan all the way!

Enter Nokia. I would like to argue that the Finnish company’s biggest contribution to current smartphones isn’t in terms of sales numbers or software, but rather in terms of design. Following the short-lived N9 with Meego, Nokia quickly repackaged their design ideas, added a lot of color, character and launched the Lumia 800.

This wasn’t a commercial success, nor one in terms of critical achievement but it was a success in that it changed the conversation of how smartphones should look and feel. The Lumia 800 brought with it a bold and playful statement, and Microsoft’s and Nokia’s commitment to push this as a more personal handset to consumers paid off.

Folks, both in terms of critics, consumers and even other OEMs noticed. A beautiful cyan-blue plastic, combined with the company’s legendary build quality made people pay attention. And most importantly it made other OEMs pay attention. A few months later the same thing happened once again with the Lumia 900, leaving many to wonder why there weren’t more well-designed colorful phones on the market.

Finally we get to the launch of Windows Phone 8 and all the handsets that went with it. In something reminiscent of Skittles ads or even this famous Sony Bravia clip, Windows Phone 8 handsets, like the eye-catching Lumia 920 or the playful and stylish designs from HTC made a big colorful splash in the markets.

And Nokia’s continued emphasis on good design and desirable looks, as seen in the Lumia 625 or the recently launched Lumia 525, finally made other OEMs cave in and join. Apple took a page out of its own playbook and came back to a much more colourful reality. Last year’s iPod touch models brought a bit of style and this year Apple went all in with the launch of the iPhone 5C. Even the 5S now gets a bit of a makeover with the gold/champagne version. And even Samsung says it’s thinking a lot more about design and build quality even though nothing has yet come of this. 

The Lumia 2520, a tablet with a splash of personality

However this situation may soon change. Nokia is giving up on smartphones and its whole handset division will become part of Microsoft. Now, I’m not saying that Microsoft doesn’t do good design, as the Modern UI itself and Surface tablets clearly show it does. But it has yet to create playful, colorful devices that have their own appeal like the Nokia branded Lumia 2520 tablet.

And in fact Microsoft has disappointed many with the rather uninspiring design of their Xbox One console. The company is unpredictable in this field. It occasionally sees major success but more often than not it’s seen as predictable and dull. There’s a real chance that all of Nokia’s hard work might get squashed or at least roughed up under Microsoft’s corporate legacy.

Samsung Ativ S - might this be the future of Windows Phone design?

And there’s another clue as to the future of Windows Phone hardware. According to recent rumors, Windows Phone 8.1 will completely ditch the physical keys and will go for an Android-styled approach where everything is digital. Why’s that important? Because Microsoft is trying to make it easier for OEMs to switch between Android and the Windows Phone platform. Which ultimately means OEMs will adopt a one size fits all approach and simply reuse their Android designs for WP handsets. And that pretty much takes us back to the Windows Phone 7 launch and its uninspiring black plastic slabs.

Of course it doesn't necessarily end like this. Apple seems to have re-committed to colors and it will hopefully drag the rest of the market with them, much like it has in the past. Microsoft themselves will hopefully embrace all that the Lumia team is bringing with it.

So even though Nokia’s role in the smartphone wars is ending, we can all hope that their legacy lives on including their awesome playful and user-friendly design.

Images via Microsoft and Nokia

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42 Comments

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You're complaining about the look of Windows Phones, yet completely forget the fact that there is only *one* look to each revision of the iPhone. There are *no* variations on *any* of the individual revisions of the iPhone whatsoever. In respect to Android phones, I would argue the reverse in detriment -- there are too many different versions and hardware levels and software differences which results in not all apps being usable on all Android phones!

I have a yellow Nokia 1020. I absolutely love the phone. It's distinctive and it takes a damn good picture. The polycarbonate is a good choice for the phone and still looks as good as it did the first day I bought it. WP, I know a lot of people don't like it but it's modern without all the clutter... and the best part. It runs perfectly smooth on a dual core. Try doing that with the iPhone or Android and see what you get.

Nokia's name has been synonymous with mobile phones worldwide (especially in Asia and Europe).

I doubt Microsoft's name will have the same recall / mindshare as Nokia when Microsoft re-brands everything and re-launches WP handsets in these markets.

I think the Nokia buyout will be a huge mess and a big problem for Microsoft. It won't go well. How does an American company intergrate a once proud Finnish company like Nokia? This has danger written all over it.

The new staff from Nokia mostly won't be American, they won't know about working for an American company, there will be cultural issues. See what I am saying? As I said Nokia was once a proud Finnish company it will now be part of an American company, I imagine lots of issues there including some resentment about the sale.

So is Vlad gonna be the F.U.D. guy around here?

There is no real basis for this, just F.U.D. But it gets the hits, so when in Rome I guess ...

Yusuf M. said,
What fear, uncertainty and doubt are you talking about? This is an editorial. The opinion of one of our writers.

And opinion that is based on fear, uncertainty and doubt, not on the information that has been released. MS is buying Nokia's handset division and the people that come with it. The same designers, technicians, etc. This editorial is ignoring all of that and trying to paint MS as some drab company that will kill all of that. That doesn't make any sense based on what we've seen, but it sure does play into the fears, uncertainties and doubts that people may have and thus drive them from MS's products with no factual reason to.

MS help to show the effectiveness of F.U.D. themselves, so don't play coy. This isn't a new concept.

My son for frig's sake, find something else to write about. They're friggin' phones, not works of art. Cheez!!!

I'm hoping they invest as much time into their phone designs as they do with their XBox controllers. I'm sure most would agree that the XBox controller is quite a solid device.

I agree. Microsoft can design some great hardware. Let's hope they put a lot of resources and effort into making great WP devices.

I disagree. Where did your speculation come from that now that Nokia is under Microsoft's reign, that we will starting to see dull black phones? This is just spreading FUD. You mean to tell me that Microsoft thinks that Nokia's strategy to gain 90% market share by introducing bright colors and great cameras into the phones is a wrong one? whoever thinks that sure needs to be booted out of the company. And believe me, that new CEO certainly will do that

Nokia did it achieve 90% of market share just because of colors.... Colors were just one of the many things that are part of Nokia allure.

Check out people who bough Nokia phones. Almost everyone avoids the black phone, unless it was forced upon them by the company. I have a yellow one, the rest of my household all bought white ones, so the 920,620 & 1520-wife . My youngest son who has the 620 also as a few colored changeable faceplates. But none of us is buying a black phone again, unless we absolutely have too

The HTC phones are just plain old ugly... I remember not so long ago there was a concept design of a (Surface influenced?) WP made by Microsoft .... Now THAT was a nice phone that I wish they would create

I have an HTC Titan with WP7. It's not flashy, but I rather like the streamlined, industrial look, to the point where I use a clear phone case. I've gotten lots of comments on the phone itself, and they're even more curious when I show them it's a Windows Phone.

On the other hand, the flashy colors of many of the Nokia phones are a turn-off for me. They look like toys rather than technology to me, but that's just my preference.

But hopefully more companies making Windows phones will mean more options and styles to choose from, so everybody can be happy.

I understand the concern but the Surface and Xbox One are bad examples.

First of all, the Touch Covers are supposed to give Surface that "playful" personality.

The Xbox One, well the PS4 indeed looks better than the Xbox One but does it really need a playful design? It is part of the home theater system and I think it should blend in.

Microsoft made appealing and playful products in the past. Just look at the Zune models and the Zune Originals project. Some of Microsoft's Mice feature some colors too.

I prefer the look of the X1 to the PS4. And I was upset the Nokia 1020 only came in black and bright yellow, since my wife and I really only wanted a black phone and a white phone....but it's good the colorful options are there for less conservative people.

I really think that Nokia's team of experts who supervised the Lumia product line, should be given the control of further Windows Phone OS and products' design and production. Microsoft's management, given the past record, have clearly no idea how to produce something innovative and attractive. Unless the ongoing reorganization in Microsoft leadership produces fruitful results.

Yes - give the Operation System production to the team that did a brilliant shop doing Symbian. Great idea. They simply know how to produce quality work!

Buendia said,
Unless the ongoing reorganization in Microsoft leadership produces fruitful results.

Fruitful results? Are you saying you want Microsoft to be more like... Apple?

Buendia said,
I really think that Nokia's team of experts who supervised the Lumia product line, should be given the control of further Windows Phone OS and products' design and production. Microsoft's management, given the past record, have clearly no idea how to produce something innovative and attractive. Unless the ongoing reorganization in Microsoft leadership produces fruitful results.

Handing NT over to a group of hardware engineers that come from a '*nix' background would be catastrophic.

I'm sure they will have good input for the evolution of the OS and what is needed to support their hardware ideas, but they already have had Microsoft's ear at Nokia.

Of all the teams that have been doing well at Microsoft, it is their WP team, which is why many of the leaders have been pulled to control more of the WinRT and UI aspects of Windows itself.

(They built a new App model with a new UI on a new runtime, with a redesigned runtime for WP8 in a very short amount of time.)

Mobius Enigma said,
Handing NT over to a group of hardware engineers that come from a '*nix' background would be catastrophic.

I'm sure they will have good input for the evolution of the OS and what is needed to support their hardware ideas, but they already have had Microsoft's ear at Nokia.

Of all the teams that have been doing well at Microsoft, it is their WP team, which is why many of the leaders have been pulled to control more of the WinRT and UI aspects of Windows itself.

(They built a new App model with a new UI on a new runtime, with a redesigned runtime for WP8 in a very short amount of time.)

I'd imagine he's talking about UX.

Wow, talk about subjective. Is anyone past 20 really looking for a "playfull" design?

FWIW I think the Ativ S is a fine looking handset, one of the best. That it isn't Cyan or Yellow or any other Lego-like hue is a plus, to my eyes. The 5c doesn't appear to be up to Apple's usual standard, IMO.

When did Nokia's handset design div announce it's actual close-down?

Greater likelihood of high-end hardware being easily to adapted to WP is a win AFAIAC. Shame about the HTC Harmony.

You make a good point. Windows Phone doesn't need another Nokia--it HAS a Nokia. What it needs are more OEMs with a variety of designs, form factors, and prices invading the market.

There's definitely room for someone to release a simple, elegant phone like the iPhone for the Windows Phone OS. Or a Galaxy variant. Or something new and innovative altogether.

Mugwump00 said,
Wow, talk about subjective. Is anyone past 20 really looking for a "playfull" design?

Subjective indeed. I happen to love Nokia's design with the bright colours. I find the Galaxy range of phones boring and uninspired, propped up with lots of hype and not much else.

Black and metallic is nice, but gets boring very quickly. There's something special and fun about the bright colours that makes the phone feel more personal.

Indeed, it's nice when our family get together and we all pull out our phones to fiddle. You look around and most of us have nice bright colours... and a Galaxy S3. It's pretty obvious which is the lame, uninspired phone of the pack.

Ideas Man said,

Subjective indeed. I happen to love Nokia's design with the bright colours. I find the Galaxy range of phones boring and uninspired, propped up with lots of hype and not much else.

Black and metallic is nice, but gets boring very quickly. There's something special and fun about the bright colours that makes the phone feel more personal.

Indeed, it's nice when our family get together and we all pull out our phones to fiddle. You look around and most of us have nice bright colours... and a Galaxy S3. It's pretty obvious which is the lame, uninspired phone of the pack.

This is something most people could argue either way, with the key points falling back to the construction/design, rather than the colors/esthetics.

We can always throw a case on even a cheap thin plastic phone or even throw a set of sticker/decal covers to change the color of the phone on a whimsy. (Decalgal, etc.) - We have Nokia phone users that do this to change the color of their device all the time, even though their phone isn't an average boring look.

However, you can't fix a device that is poorly made so that it heats up in your hand, dents, the screen shatters or the structure breaks easily.

Nokia makes a solid phone that doesn't break easily, and this is where Microsoft needs to keep focused. I would be surprised for them to compromise in this area, as their Surface tablets are also very sturdy designs that make the iPads and best Android tablets feel rather fragile.

"Is anyone past 20 really looking for a "playful" design?". Um, yes, actually. I'm 51, thank you very much, and I DESPISE the predictable, boring wannabe smartphones out there. I originally bought the Samsung Focus (which was just a regurgitation of their Android device....as are pretty much ALL other Windows Phones are) because it was the best of the initial crop. But when the Nokia Lumia 900 came out I jumped on that immediately and bought the cyan. It stood out in a crowd of "sameness" and didn't feel like a flipping TOY. Then I graduated to the Lumia 920 (also cyan, which I still have) a yellow Lumia with all the accessories. When I walk in a room with the 1020 it immediately gets attention and I invariably have a chance to show it off. If this results in a few converts (and it HAS), then I consider that a bonus. I HATE the look of all the other devices, including the Lumias that have broken from the ranks to look just like the other boring, crappy phones. So, I don't really care if the other WP OEMs make colorful phones. If boring people want boring phones, fine. I live an exciting life and I do my best to surround myself with things that reflect that. I hope the Lumia devices remain unique.

I should mention that my wife, 48, has the Lumia 1020 as well and loves it's look. Particularly after having been an iPhone user for quite some time. She says she's not looking back, either.

Mugwump00 said,
Wow, talk about subjective. Is anyone past 20 really looking for a "playfull" design?
36 male hear. I have a Yellow Lumia 1020. I would prefer a burnt orange/orange phone. It think it looks quite nice. I'm not trying to be playful, I'm just not trying to melt into the rest of the crowd.

I didn't have to buy a case to make mine look different or represent me. I see all these samsung gray/black devices... they look boring. But so does the Android UI so I guess that's the thing.

Robert Wade said,
"Is anyone past 20 really looking for a "playful" design?". Um, yes, actually. I'm 51, thank you very much, and I DESPISE the predictable, boring wannabe smartphones out there. I originally bought the Samsung Focus (which was just a regurgitation of their Android device....as are pretty much ALL other Windows Phones are) because it was the best of the initial crop. But when the Nokia Lumia 900 came out I jumped on that immediately and bought the cyan. It stood out in a crowd of "sameness" and didn't feel like a flipping TOY. Then I graduated to the Lumia 920 (also cyan, which I still have) a yellow Lumia with all the accessories. When I walk in a room with the 1020 it immediately gets attention and I invariably have a chance to show it off. If this results in a few converts (and it HAS), then I consider that a bonus. I HATE the look of all the other devices, including the Lumias that have broken from the ranks to look just like the other boring, crappy phones. So, I don't really care if the other WP OEMs make colorful phones. If boring people want boring phones, fine. I live an exciting life and I do my best to surround myself with things that reflect that. I hope the Lumia devices remain unique.

Well said. A lot of smartphones nowadays are black. My Nexus 5 is black. I would have bought the white one but my best friend had it already so I decided to go for something unique between the two of us. I did, however, buy a grey case. If Google sold a cyan case, then I would have bought that. I don't like red and yellow but I appreciate the choices. And as you said, colour allows your device to stand out which is a good thing in today's smartphone-ridden world.

I rather see the surface phone come out than yet another colored 900 variant. HTC did nice things with the one. Sadly HTC never tried hard for WP and held back the best on Android. Their bet on Android surely seems to have been misplaced as Samsung OS eats them alive.

neonspark said,
I rather see the surface phone come out than yet another colored 900 variant. HTC did nice things with the one. Sadly HTC never tried hard for WP and held back the best on Android. Their bet on Android surely seems to have been misplaced as Samsung OS eats them alive.

I agree with you but I too want to see the continuation with Nokia styled phones. Never a bad thing to have choices for everyone. As to the authors comment about ugly designs, according to info on the 8X it was a collaboration between HTC and MS on the design. I honestly thought it was one of the nicest designs that year. Besides they took the whole division, that would include the design team so I don't get your point.

Indeed. Did this article seem highly focused on color choices?

On that note, I use a beautiful looking Lumia 920 every day. What color? Nice simple black. I live the design, but can't say I would care for it in cyan, yellow, red, white...