The Nokia Verve And the Challenge of Connecting

Date:   Thursday , July 12, 2007

Connecting people symbolizes Nokia. Today it commands a leadership position—with a 42 percent market share—in the Indian mobile handset market. While it is seen as a handset company, the engineering challenges it encounters in designing futuristic models is engrossing, and the Nokia R&D center in Bangalore provides a sneak peek into them. The activities there reveal the complexities that go into the process of making the high-end phones which are flooding the market. Nearly 600 engineers in Bangalore diligently work towards churning out the best devices, with a wide variety of features.

Ajith Mekkoth, Head of India Operations, (Product and Technology Platforms) Nokia, recalls the time when he started his career at Nokia in the Silicon Valley 12 years ago; he was working towards the 2100 series of phones. At that time, the mobile phone market was very small, and it was possible to survive in the market rolling out just two or three products in a year.

The situation is starkly different today. Owing to stiff competition, the scale or the portfolio of products has become important and the company rolls out almost half a dozen models with multifold features in a quarter. In order to introduce products almost every other week, there is a paradigm shift in the product development model.

“Today, you cannot have life cycles of a year. They must be month-long. So we have to keep inventing and innovating,” says Mekkoth. “In the earlier times, the cell phone was centered on radio technology. Today, the radio is not the differentiating element any more. Multimedia is getting prominence. Hence the engineering processes are tuned in accordance with the market needs. Earlier, we used to work on individual products, but now we work on platforms or reusable blocks which integrate into various products.”

It is with this new philosophy—platforms or modularity of components—that the Nokia India R&D center works.

The Nokia R&D centre in Bangalore was established in 2001 with the acquisition of Amber Networks. Over the last six years the centre has played a pivotal role in the development of new applications and software platforms. Nokia has two additional R&D centers in India, one each in Hyderabad and Mumbai. The centers are focused on next-generation packet-switched mobile technologies and communications solutions to enhance corporate productivity. It has three main divisions: the software platform division, products platform division and multimedia products division.

The software platform group works on operation systems (Linux/ Windows/ Symbian), development of parts of the base services for the platform, application frameworks, user interfaces and test tools.

The products platform group works on areas related to the chipset—all the way from RF to protocol stack and codecs. Specifically in India, on the chipset level work is done mainly in the area of ASIC, design, verification and maintenance of chipset blocks, protocol stack development (2G/3G) and maintenance, audio and video codec design.
The software platform and product platform groups provide the technology elements that go into building ‘technology blocks,’ which are then reused by make multiple products—conventional phones, multimedia phones (like the Nokia N Series) and PDAs for the enterprise sector. For instance, in two different phones from similar series, the lower layers of the platform may be reused. In the higher layers, there will be mix and match of different technology blocks to get the right recipe that would sell.

The multimedia division at Nokia’s India R&D center contributes to the software development related to multimedia phones. The division also contributes significantly to the verification of platforms.

Nokia manufactures nearly a million phones every day. Having an exposure to the manufacturing process would provide the designers an understanding of the ‘manufacturability’ of phones. In this regard, Mekkoth recalls his visit to a Nokia factory in Dallas. “For me it was a direct realization of how my code behaves. Many times we do not consider speed of execution of the code. We only look at functionality and make sure it is working.” It gave him an idea of how each second translates to money.

For instance, each phone is slightly different from the other. So, things like the RF has to be tuned to make the performance optimum. This process has to be done in an order of a second. It is very important that engineers write software that is very efficient in tuning. If the software is written without understanding the manufacturing process, the programmer can easily add several more seconds to achieve the same. This translates to relatively lesser phones manufactured in a day. “The production line has to move as fast as possible. You don’t want to do things in your software algorithm that would impede the process,” says Mekkoth. “A small bug unnoticed can play havoc in the market. Apart from making millions of phones unusable, it will also bring us down in the market.”

There are plans on cards to launch a similar program for engineers in Nokia’s Bangalore center, which will enable them to visit the Chennai manufacturing plant. Awareness on the impact of a product recall to the bottom line of the company is important. The designer/developer drives home the point that quality of the software has to be extremely high.

A huge thrust is given on verification. Each team is challenged to find errors that may creep in different user case scenarios. The team’s performance is measured by number of errors found outside of it. Every new product goes into the hands of hundred of users within the company—employees who were never involved in developing that particular model—before it is launched in the market. This is followed by a feedback survey from those employees.

The challenge today is to roll out products which cater to customers at all levels, with multifold features and that too, in a limited time frame. Several workshops and seminars are conducted throughout the year to encourage innovation and invention. To predict next generation technology and work on its various aspects is the main agenda of the company.

As each day passes, the life of an engineer in the company only gets exciting. The market landscape for mobile handsets is changing rapidly and competition is intense. “The direction in which we are heading indicates that everything that a personal computer does must be enabled on a handset,” says Mekkoth. In such a scenario, an engineer at Nokia will not know what product will be rolled out six months from now. Because, no one can predict how the landscape will take turns. Working in such an environment is nothing but challenging.