We have caught up with Nikolaus Scheurer, Sony Mobile’s Director of Marketing and Planning, for an interview on the new Xperia NXT series from Sony.
In case you’re not familiar with the new Xperia phones revealed at MWC, check out our news post here.
GSMArena: Tell us about how this current line of devices came about.
N. Scheurer: Honestly, 25th of October was when we learned that we would become a future part of Sony, fully integrated. What you must understand as well is that in this industry it takes much longer for the planning cycle to develop new devices; not only hardware but also devices.
So the design work for the Xperia NXT Series; now as the first generation of Sony smartphones, started about two years back.
So that’s a long cycle—where you explore design roots, where you talk to consumers, where you see mega-trends in design, architecture and as well consumer behavior. So back then what our designers said was: all of the smartphones, all the big screens looked alike; one like the other. All black slabs, no real differentiation. And you need to stand out. Not only in the store but as well, if you want to purchase a smartphone, you want to have something that tells all your mates that you want to make a statement. That’s part of your personality, it’s always with you.
So our designers had this idea of creating a design identity which is iconic, I mean that sounds descriptive, but if you think about it what they created is basically a silhouette. Looked at from a certain angle, it’s almost like an exclamation mark so it makes a statement. Taking away everything, like all the curvature—which is a bit different from our earlier designs and has a good feel in your hand—then focus on the screen. That is what they wanted to do, because that’s your window to the world.
And the transparent element, this was technology that we had, our engineers had that for a long while and they said, “How can we utilize this?” Technology flows through something which is magic, but that it’s not just excess or something. So below that transparent element you actually have the antenna.
That’s the antenna of the phone?
Yeah. I can show you on this one, with a bit more brute force. On the other ones you can’t exchange the caps, but on the Xperia U, you have the antenna pieces in here and if you look through it you can see the grid where there is actually code going through. It serves as illumination…it’s a piece of magic. You can see through it, it connects you to the world beyond the smartphone. And that’s a bit of the story, your phone is connected to life; that’s the story beyond the smartphone.
So what those devices do is, now they mark out the next generation of Xperia smartphones now under the Sony brand. So they’re extremely important to us, they are basically the heart and soul of everything that we do from now on, they communicate what a Sony Xperia smartphone stands for; the best of Sony technologies and design But also, deeply implemented services so that you get every type of content: music, video, Playstation gaming. Playstation is now on the Sony Entertainment Network.
Are these all Playstation-certified devices?
The Xperia S is Playstation-certified and the Xperia ion which we have announced for the US market. And that’s simply because, you need a certain screen size to play effectively. Although the controls are virtual they still, in a way, overlay. They don’t cover the gaming content, but they overlay the gaming content. So the smaller the screen, the more cumbersome it would actually be.
The ion is coming to the rest of the world, still as an LTE device, but to the emerging LTE markets, right?
Yeah. I mean, the rollout of LTE is a bit different, wherever you look globally, but the Xperia ion will be available during the summer in additional markets, not only in the US. So some of those markets will be LTE markets by that time.
It tricky because outside the US, LTE is not particularly prevalent yet.
It’s three markets mainly. It is Japan, it is Korea, it is the US, but the US is absolutely in the lead there. The race has been on LTE and 4G, but it’s clearly there. In Japan as well. Of course, you will see us announce devices in the future with support for LTE not only for the US. So we’re ready basically. This is the statement: we’re ready, once the markets are ready. And in many markets, the customers tell us that right now is not the time yet, the rollout is not there, there is no real user base as well Yet.
Going back to the design language, between the three devices, why did the ion not adopt this band? To differentiate it as an LTE device?
Well there is a couple of development, but as well collaboration reasons actually behind it. We’ve been working very closely with AT&T, basically during the whole development process, including the design process. And in the US there is a massive race on: the bigger the screen, the better. That of course sets certain limitations on how explorative and how imaginative you can be with a design like this, because you need to place components at a certain point.
So LTE, with more antennas, more modern components and a bigger screen simply sets a certain context for the designers and the engineers to work with. And then of course the collaboration with AT&T—the customer as well—wanted to go for this unibody design and the slim, curved design, so that the consumer does not feel that they are compromising with an LTE device on the overall size and dimensions. It still follows the same design principles, which we call ‘human curvature’, so that it fits to your hand.
Is that what this is as well, ‘human curvature?’
Yeah. That’s the design philosophy in total. We say the design needs to do something for you rationally, it needs to tell you it’s a technical product, it needs to tell you ‘this is how you use me,’ but then it needs to affect you emotionally. You want to touch it, you want to use it, it needs to fit in your hand.
You want to enjoy having the device. Of course.
It is a really powerful device if you think about it. Now, I’m not comparing, but it’s the screen size of an iPhone. 3.5-inch, so it is amazing, right? Very compact.
It looks so small now, it’s funny.
It’s looks small yeah exactly, but I would rather call it compact. But you get all the greatness of Sony technology inside: Bravia Engine, great camera, the services implemented as well, and connectivity beyond the smartphone. And then you have this additional value for many consumers, a bit more the younger target audience, when you go into it, did you try that out? It picks up the illumination of the image.
It reminds me of the Ambi-light TVs, Panasonic, Philips I think it was.
Philips, exactly. It had the bezel around, illuminated.
It’s the first time I’ve seen it on a mobile device.
Yeah, exactly. It’s very smart. You change the scene behind, it picks up the theme color; flip through your music, so when you’re in the music player, it picks up the album art. It would pick the main color of the album art and then take that color and it basically echoes it.
If you saw this device on TV without any frame of reference, it would be quite hard to differentiate the scale. How are you going to market the strengths of each device to each market and make the user understand that they’re different?
If you would ask me as well, I’m German and I live in Sweden, it’s a bit of a phenomenon of highly subsidized markets. In a retail market environment, those three devices in particular, they would find very clearly differentiated consumer target audiences, simply because of the price and not only the technology. In subsidized markets, it’s much more difficult in a way to clearly address the right consumers. What we do is, we do consumer research already in the planning. Insight into the behaviors of those consumers and who we target, so it’s not that we just came up with this idea, ‘Oh, illumination, wouldn’t that be cool!’ We’ve had a clear target audience in mind, so we will basically use those insights in the research into how we market, who we address, how we market to them, what are the features and the benefits of this smartphone that are more relevant to them.
So we actually really see three very distinct consumer audiences, behind the three devices; a bit more younger here, here a bit more looking for something that is lasting and reassuring quality-wise. And the Xperia S power users, the more progressive ones that always want the latest and greatest, state of the art, want to make a statement. They most likely will in twelve months from now already have the next Sony Xperia smartphone, right? So those ones, they will be happy with a two year contract and they know that it’s solid, it still serves me after two years, with the best of Sony inside. And with the Xperia U it’s much more playful. I know that I can customise it to my own needs and still have all the Sony inside that’s accessible to me.
So what you’re saying is the next flagship will be out this time next year, based on what you just said, is that right?
What you’ve seen from us when we were still Sony Ericsson is that the refresh cycle is, especially in the top end of the portfolio, extremely short. And so is the attention span. Like yourself, you said ‘Oh you’re coming only with the next flagship in a year, isn’t that a bit long?’
Nowadays, that is.
I’m basically implying there will be a new flagship earlier than this because that’s how the market is, right? The Xperia S will be an absolute flagship product, even a half year in and hopefully as well a year from now, we will drive this as an absolute aspiration of the product and it will be portrayed like a hero to our brand. But at the same time you will see product refreshes, new technology, new services, even more Sony going forward.
As with the last Sony Ericsson devices, where the Arc became the Arc S and the Neo, the Neo V, is it going to upgrade like that? Will it be the ‘Xperia S Plus’ or something like that? Is it going to be a refresh on this current device where the design is the same but the underlying hardware might get upgraded?
I’m not ruling it out, but there could be something that also expresses the same design philosophy in a different way. I mean, even in half a year, components will change, technical capabilities will change, maybe even the perception of an end consumer in the top end…what you value more. What design traits you value more, services, performance of the device, We want to bring something new to the market.
Obviously this is slightly out of your field in the sense that, when you’re talking about connecting to the Sony experience stuff like the tablets over there, are you going to be introducing maybe Xperia styling elements to the tablet range? Has that even been considered?
I mean that’s a very precise question, on that one I can’t really say. But the designer for the Xperia NXT series is a former Sony designer, and was actually deeply involved, if not the lead, into creating the monolithic design for the Bravias. Knowing that, you can actually read into this design with much more an understanding. ‘Oh, this follows a certain design style.’
And now that we’re deeply integrated into Sony, the design collaboration, both in hardware but even more importantly in UI design, the user experience is extremely refined. I mean it basically started the first day of the partnership. I mean it was always close but now it’s genuine, now there are no longer two separate companies in the sense that people need to knock on the door.
Is it still Timescape UI?
Well, it’s an interesting question because we don’t really name our user experience. But what we said in the press conference was that it’s the Sony user experience. So Timescape we’ve done it a bit differently, we’ve actually populated the five homescreens in a different way. Here it’s a bit more utility, here it is more social. The social tab houses what you know from Timescape, so you have a Timescape feed in here, but in a different way so. So you could go into the tile to still have that experience, but not as prominent anymore. Here, it’s more entertainment-led and here you can really explore.
Is this the default layout?
That’s the default population of those screens, obviously you have all the opportunity to customise, bring in your own widgets and so on.
And the S comes running Ice Cream Sandwich?
All of them come on Gingerbread, but what’s important is all of these come with user experiences in our platform with what you may expect is only available from Ice Cream Sandwich. That is, if you wake up the device, you can interact on the lock screen with widgets running, so this is for example something that others only get on Ice Cream Sandwich. In folders, creating 2D and 3D panoramic images, if you remember we already had that, so we even have 3D panorama images, we have expandable widgets; the weather widget for example and the others are interactive and expandable, So all of this is already in although it’s Gingerbread. But it doesn’t matter because we promised, and this is what will stay true, is that from the summer on we will upgrade to Ice Cream Sandwich.
So what you’re saying is users might actually not notice a dramatic difference in the user experience, because you’ve already made the steps, you’ve already laid the way?
Exactly, multi-tasking is already there, expandable widgets; it’s already there. So, the consumer may not even see what the difference is. And the step up, as we know, it’s not that drastic, between Gingerbread and Ice Cream Sandwich.
It’ll be behind the scenes stuff, software improvements?
Yeah and what I truly and genuinely hope is that the consumers understand that from 2011, we really will upgrade all of our portfolio based on Android to Ice Cream Sandwich. So we’re basically starting now in April, to roll that out so every single Android device, back down to the Xperia base from Sony Ericsson, but as well as Live with Walkman based on Android, will see the Ice Cream Sandwich upgrade. That is a reassurance for a consumer of a Sony Xperia smartphone: the upgrade will come.
Was the design of devices done in Germany?
We have design centers in Lund, Sweden, in Japan, and we have them in the US as well, It was a collaboration across all our design departments and the majority of the design came out of Japan and out of Lund. That’s where the majority of our development sits; in those sites we have the strongest design people—strongest in terms of how many people work there.
Thanks to Nikolaus Scheurer for taking the time talk with us! Check out our preview on the Xperia S here.