The Nokia insider who knows why it failed warns Apple it could be next

The Nokia insider who knows why it failed warns Apple it could be next

Frank Nuovo with fashion designer Wayne Cooper in the Nokia glory days.

When The New York Times profiled Frank Nuovo in December 1999, he sat on top of the world. The industrial design guru was responsible for the look and feel of Nokia’s mobile devices, which had taken the world by storm. Figures quoted at the time showed one in every three phones sold in the world that year were Nokia handsets he had designed. The phones and the company were touted as redefining a market . . . doing for phones what Swatch did for watches, they were cool, reliable and unstoppably popular. But of course it was stopped, and when the company’s phone operations were acquired by Micorosoft for €5.44 billion ($7.82 billion) on Tuesday, plenty of seasoned commentators opined that the Finnish company’s shareholders should be thanking their lucky stars.

Few people are better placed than Nuovo to comment on what went wrong for the tech company that had it all, and he is not afraid to lay it on the line. Just as importantly, he warns that current smartphone kingpin Apple risks following Nokia down the same path of decline unless it makes some painful choices.

Nokia’s success was no flash in the pan. After the glowingNew York Times profile, Nokia continued to reign supreme for most of the following decade.

When Nuovo left the company in 2006, it was still the world’s No. 1 phone maker, leading the likes of Motorola, Samsung and LG Electronics with a third of global market share.

But the following year, along came Steve Jobs with the iPhone, and the rest is history.

How Nokia fell

Speaking to The Australian Financial Review from his design studio in Los Angeles, where he works on designs for numerous clients including luxury phone maker Vertu and smart watch firm MetaWatch, Nuovo says Nokia became a victim of its size.

In an honest assessment, he laments Nokia’s missed opportunities. It had working prototypes for 8-inch tablet computers years before the iPad emerged, toyed with touch screens before Apple “invented” them and let its dominance slip by seeking to protect what it had.

“I look back and I think Nokia was just a very big company that started to maintain its position more than innovate for new opportunities,” Nuovo says.

“All of the opportunities were in front of them and Nokia was working on them, but the key word is a sense of urgency. While things were in play there was a real sense of saying ‘we will get to that eventually.’”

Nuovo is not overly critical of the leadership at Nokia, but says the company’s dominance of the smartphone market left it in a bind. It had a huge user base of customers who liked what they had, and also needed to be supported.

In hindsight it got the balance fatally wrong, servicing its existing product at the expense of fresh innovation.

The perception of Apple and its founder Steve Jobs as a visionary who redefined the way phones were conceived is not disputed by Nuovo, but it stings.


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