Marko Ahtisaari, executive vice president of design at Nokia, is sliding his finger along the edges of the Lumia 920, the Finnish company’s newest flagship smartphone. A bumblebee yellow-and-black device of curved polycarbonate and glass, the latest addition to the well-reviewed Lumia series is a result of what Ahtisaari calls "hyper integration." He’s showing off how the smartphone’s glass appears to sink effortlessly into the device’s body, so it’s difficult to tell where the hardware ends and the software begins.
"You strip everything away that’s unnecessary--if we could get rid of it, we would get rid of it," he says. "It’s very much driven by the craft of how the product is assembled, so the part lines are almost invisible. All that you’re left with is just the essence of the thing."
Ahtisaari, a former professional musician and philosophy professor at Columbia, is delving into Nokia’s Bauhaus approach to design, but all I can think is: I want to eat this thing. The aesthetic of the Lumia 920 calls to mind stretched salt-water taffy or lemon Starburst or a juicy banana, and Ahtisaari, who refers to the devices as a "forbidden fruit," isn’t surprised by my reaction. Nokia hopes consumers will feel the same sense of appetite too: The company’s market cap and mobile market share have been pulverized in recent years as Apple, Google, and competing OEMs have destroyed Nokia’s industry dominance. But Nokia’s unique smartphone designs could represent a turning point. "The form language and aesthetic is almost post-industrial, and I don’t say so lightly," he says. "This product doesn’t look like it comes off of a product line. It looks more like it’s been grown on a tree."
Much of the Lumia 920 is about upgrades and refinement. At 10.7-mm thin, with a 4.5-inch display and sculpted backside, the device is the next evolution of the previous generation Lumia 900. Only the 920 is much smoother than its predecessor, not just in feel but in hardware integration. "We’ve gotten much better at making these polycarbonate unibodies that flow seamlessly into the Gorilla Glass," Ahtisaari says. In addition to yellow, the Lumia 920 will come in red, white, grey, and black, "blended colors that are inherent polymer, meaning the polymer is colored throughout," he adds. "It’s not just painted polycarbonate; if you scratch it, it ages gracefully because everything is colored through and through."
Coupled with Windows Phone 8, Microsoft’s new mobile operating system, the UI’s Metro-themed colors and tiles complement the Lumia 920. The idea, as one Microsoft designer told me once, is to make the hardware "a physical extension of Windows."
Simply put, the device’s hardware feels both solid and soft, a contradiction that designer Gadi Amit described of the Lumia 900 as "light yet solid as a rock…the satin finish feels great in the hand. It isn’t trying to be a jewel; it is a tool for modern, mobile living." The same can be said of the 920; as Ahtisaari puts it, "We’re not making something that’s fragile that needs to be covered with three accessory covers just to feel like you can take it outside."
A few of the other upgrades: The 920 features Qualcomm’s 1.5 GHz dual-core Snapdragon processor; 1GB of RAM; and an 8.7MP camera that features optical-image stabilization and low-light functionality, meaning pictures are likely to come out better even when taken with shaky hands in the dark. Nokia also today unveiled the Lumia 820, the 920's stouter and more economic cousin, which doesn’t have all of the same whiz-bang features but will come at a lower cost. Nokia didn’t clue us into pricing and availability, but said the company will be rolling out that information in the coming weeks.
Outside the Lumia 920's surface shell and under-the-hood specs, there are a few bells and whistles that Nokia is likely to push to market its new flagship phone. The first is inductive charging. Rather than have to plug your phone into a USB port or wall socket, the Lumia 920 is able to wirelessly charge without needing an accessory battery or case. On the JBL PowerUp charging station or Fatboy rechargeable pillow, a sort of bean bag for your smartphone, just lay down the Lumia 920 for it to start regaining battery life. (To be clear, the inductive charging will only work on charging stations compatible with Nokia’s smartphones.)
Additionally, the Lumia 920 smartphone will come with NFC technology, but the company isn’t showing it off as a payments tool (though that is certainly one application). With the JBL PlayUp wireless speaker, just plop your Lumia 920 on top of the speaker for it to begin streaming playback of your music wirelessly. "There are shortcuts for the things that would normally take you 21 pokes or swipes," Ahtisaari says. "There’s no going back once you feel it--wires just feel antiquated."
Still, as impressive as the design and technology of the new Lumias are, Nokia still has a long way to go before it regains the prominence it once had before Apple and Google came along to the mobile market. For one, Nokia is betting big on an unproven platform, Windows Phone 8, which has a low market share and faces issues of consumer awareness and an underdeveloped app ecosystem. And however well-received the 920 is among critics, it still has to be a hit among consumers to succeed. (Critics gushed Lumia 900, for example, but it failed to move the needle.)
Nokia, however, says that right now, it’s all about patience. "I think we’ve had healthy expectations that we’re not going to go from zero to an enormous market share overnight," says Jo Harlow, executive VP of Nokia’s of smart devices. "But we’ve got to keep growing,"
The Lumia 920, seemingly sprouted from a tree as Ahtisaari describes, is a good start.