Frank Nuovo was the Jony Ive of Nokia.
Or, more accurately, Jony Ive, Apple’s legendary design guru, is the Frank Nuovo of Apple. Long before Ive turned his attention to mobile devices, Nuovo designed phones for Nokia that were iconic in the late 1990s and early 2000s. It’s possible that when Nokia’s marketshare peaked in 2008, one in three phones purchased that year were designed by Nuovo.
Now independent, Nuovo is working on the next big thing in mobile devices: A high-end smartwatch to be unveiled in the first quarter of 2014. Details on the device are scant, but it will be created by Metawatch, an early entrant into the smartwatch category that was spun out of fashion watch giant Fossil in September 2011. The watch will have an updated version of Metawatch’s current smartphone operating system, and a new display, says Metawatch CEO Bill Geiser.
From luxury phones to luxury smartwatches
One of Nuovo’s last projects at Nokia was the ultra-luxury smartphone brand Vertu, which managed to turn aging Nokia dumb phone technology into status objects encrusted with high-end design, diamonds and precious metals. The most expensive phone Vertu ever crafted sold for £300,000 ($480,000). In June 2012 Nokia managed to sell Vertu to a private equity firm for a rumored $200 million, even as Nokia’s own debt was downgraded to junk status.
“I’ve been gnawing on [Nuovo's] ankle for several years,” says Geiser of his attempts to recruit the designer. “To me it’s about crafting beautiful products. That’s a word you rarely hear in the smartwach arena—the word beautiful.”
A warning for Apple, lessons for Metawatch
Nuovo recently told the Australian Financial Review that Apple is now in the same position Nokia was in when Nuovo left Nokia in 2006: A market leader in phones devoting resources to maintaining its current position rather than disrupting itself with new products. Perhaps that’s why Nuovo is himself transitioning from smartphones to smartwatches, which have very different market dynamics.
The most important difference between smartphones and smartwatches is that the former are dominated by two major manufacturers and their ecosystems—Apple and Samsung—while the latter are manufactured by thousands of successful companies. Even if Apple captures a large portion of the middle range of the market with its rumored iWatch, there will be room for other entrants—potentially, even the updated version of the Metawatch designed by Nuovo, which in its current incarnation aspires to luxury but has received mixed reviews.