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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