Web Exclusives:Features


June 5, 2002:

The new bellboy
Erik Anderson '84, one of the guys behind Nokia, brings interest in art and architecture to making mobile phones

When Erik Anderson '84 went to work for Nokia's mobile phone unit in 1989, the company was a Finnish conglomerate known for its rubber boots and industrial cables. The phone factory near Anderson's office in Salo, Finland, had been outfitted with high ceilings and an extra-thick floor — so that it could be used to build sailboats "in case the mobile phone business didn't work out," Anderson said.

The phone business has worked out just fine. Last year, Nokia sold an estimated 140 million mobile phones, 35 percent of the world total and more than twice as many as any other manufacturer. And Anderson has played no small part in the climb, helping design key software for the phone models that started Nokia to the top and, for the last several years, overseeing Nokia's largest line of phones, those it sells in Europe and Asia.

In May he was promoted to head a new business unit that will seek to extend Nokia's dominance into the market for corporate handheld organizers that includes the Palm Pilot and Compaq iPAQ. .

Along the way, the 39-year-old has found a way to marry his interest in Renaissance art and architecture, which first blossomed at Princeton, with his work. "I think the approach to making architecture in the Renaissance is very useful to making anything," says Anderson, who has worked closely with the creative team that designs the look of Nokia phones.

Anderson came to Finland originally not for Nokia, but for love. After graduating from Princeton with a degree in electrical engineering and computer science, he spent two years as a consultant at Booz Allen Hamilton in Washington, D.C., then three years getting his masters degree in fine arts at Harvard, where he concentrated on Renaissance art and architecture.

On a trip to Europe while at Harvard, he detoured to Finland to seek out a woman whom he'd met on a postcollege visit in 1984. Two weeks later, he proposed to Tove Ringbom, now his wife, by telegram and eventually moved to Finland.

He began working at Nokia, he says, because it was the only local company that did not mind that he could not speak Finnish. Despite his youth and inexperience, he was soon dispatched to meetings where Nokia and other phone companies were writing the technical standards for the relatively new industry.

"In those days, we had no idea what we were on to," he said. "We knew that mobile phones were fun, but we certainly had no idea how big it was going to be."

Back at Nokia, he was designing the user interface — the software that controls how a user accesses a phone's functions — for the Nokia 101, its first phone to sell widely on a global basis, and the 2100 series of phones, the round-face models that were its breakthrough line. Nokia's user interface, much admired for its simplicity, has been credited as a chief reason the company was able to overtake competitors such as Motorola and Ericsson.

Anderson hadn't lost his interest in architecture, though. And in 1994, after spending another semester at Harvard teaching as a graduate assistant and taking his general exams, he left for Italy with a Fulbright grant to do research on 16th-century architect Andrea Palladio, the subject of his doctoral dissertation.

Even while in Italy, though, he remained an informal consultant for Nokia, which continued to pay his mobile phone bills. And in 1995, he returned to Nokia, which had been struggling to develop new phones.

He found he could apply the lessons of his architects to his work. "As a Renaissance architect, Palladio was struggling with the issue of what we call in architecture typology: What does a church look like, what does a house look like, what does a bridge look like," he said. "How do architects create and people recognize typologies and what visual and functional languages are used?"

"I started somehow thinking about the issue of trying to approach product design and segmentation the way the Renaissance architects approached building design. It sounds hokey, but it worked for me," he says.

He incorporated Renaissance books and buildings in the presentations that he gave to engineers and product managers. "It's very simple stuff. My professors would probably throw up and consider it vulgar sacrilege," he says. But, he says, the engineers "come in thinking about making a piece of cheap plastic. We talk about architecture for an hour, and they walk out of there with a different attitude. They put their heart into it and they're better able to make decisions and make choices."

Anderson and his group helped to develop Nokia's first phones with built-in games and ringing tones that could be downloaded from the Internet, as well as its first models with changeable covers. "Those two phones took us to No. 1," Anderson says. The new features, and the phones' fashionable look, helped separate Nokia from its competitors.

Now, Anderson has turned his attention to the corporate sector, where Nokia faces competition not only from its traditional rivals in the mobile phone industry, but also from handheld-computer makers such as Palm and even on the software side from Microsoft.

"The corporate space is very new for Nokia," he says. "We have very little presence and very little track record or experience in the corporate space. But we're very interested in it."

The challenge is big enough, he says, that the doctoral dissertation, still incomplete, will have to wait.


By Buster Kantrow '95

Buster Kantrow is a reporter for Dow Jones Newswires in Stockholm.