Lessons from Three Enduring Phones

Last week I was lucky enough to go away on a skiing holiday. As always, I left my packing to the last minute. On the evening before departure I found myself scrabbling around the office for a Nokia S60 phone to take with me, as I wanted to use the excellent Sports Tracker software while I was on the slopes.

I eventually found a Nokia E71 that several members of the CCS Insight team have used since it was sent to us as an evaluation unit back in July 2008. The phone has had a tough life; the screen’s scratched and the metal casing is dented and marked. I updated the firmware, installed Ovi Maps for the UK, France and Italy, added the Sports Tracker software and synced via Mail for Exchange to get my contacts on the phone.

Having used the E71 all week, I returned to work and my colleagues were surprised to see me using such an old phone – typically I have the latest models from any number of manufacturers in my hands.

It suddenly dawned on me that I was in a similar position to most people who buy a phone with a 24-month contract. Here I was with a phone that I would have had for 21 months, and I honestly have to say I would not be dissatisfied. The E71 has aged remarkably well and considerably better than many other devices launched around the same time. Nokia has kept the firmware regularly updated and even now, as the phone approaches what would probably be considered the end of its life by most owners, Nokia has serendipitously added even more value by announcing free walk and drive navigation on Ovi Maps.

Creating an enduring product is the Holy Grail in mobile phone design, and a few products spring to mind. The Motorola Razr has undoubtedly lasted well and still looks good today, but the superb hardware design’s let down by dreadful software and a terrifying decline in profit margin.

More recently the most enduring design has been Apple’s iPhone. Unveiled in January 2007, it still has essentially the same design, and it continues to sell in large numbers and with strong margins.

I believe that enduring products come from teams that really care about the devices they’re delivering. Having met many of the individuals involved in the creation of these three products, I’m convinced they’re passionate about their work. The Razr, iPhone and E71 also used high-quality materials in innovative ways and made people think again about the size, weight and capabilities of mobile devices.

In the case of the E71 and iPhone, the franchises continue to be extremely strong, with new models building on the success of the originals. Perhaps it’s software that sets them apart. The Razr was undone by its poor user interface. In contrast, Apple gives users the impression of getting a new phone every time it releases a major update to the iPhone OS, and Nokia is cleverly using free navigation to rejuvenate aging phones.

Part of my job is judging whether a new phone is going to be a success and it’s often a hit-and-miss exercise. However, I’m convinced we can learn from these enduring products. As Nokia regenerates itself, I’m sure it’s been taking a long hard look at what has made devices like the E71 so successful. Other manufacturers should be drawing lessons from this and ensuring they allow their product teams the freedom to deliver great products that pass the test of time.