Frank Nuovo: He's got your number

Frank Nuovo is Mr Mobile, the man who designs the slickest phones in the world. He tells Johnny Davis how the next generation will do battle with the iPod and become 'personal radars'
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He does, he cheerfully admits, walk around with a bag full of phones all day. "Well, they're for different purposes," he says. "If I'm going out for a posh night somewhere, I'd want a conversation piece. If I'm going to Disneyland with my kids, I want to be able to carry a phone that can take great pictures of the family." Nuovo really likes his phones. He should do, too. He designed them.

As vice president and chief designer at Nokia, Nuovo has, more than anyone else, been responsible for morphing mobiles from comedy Yuppie house bricks into sexy objects of desire. While, for example, some sneaker companies maintain that their shoes have nothing to do with fashion but are manufactured solely for sporting endeavour, Nuovo, 44, makes no bones that his creations should be seen as trend-setting accessories. "Oh, absolutely!" he beams, sat in London's Design Museum, hours before he's due to deliver a talk on what the future holds, mobile-wise.

"In the early days I would use 'fashion' and 'technology' in the same sentence and the engineers would say, 'What the hell are you talking about?' They'd turn pale." Today, there is nothing pale about Nokia's bank balance. With annual revenues over £18bn, the company is in rosy health. Indeed, Nokia isn't just the world's leading telecommunications company; the complexity of its products means it's also the world's top computer manufacture. And since half of the 200 million handsets it sold last year were camera phones, it's the world's leading camera-maker, too.

For 16 years, Nuovo's designs have driven this. It was he who came up with the original "candy bar" shape, he who had the idea of removable, customisable covers, and he who invented Vertu, Nokia's diamond-encrusted, platinum-shelled, footballer-wooing premium range, the priciest of which rings to the tune of £20,000. No wonder US Vogue christened him " the man who made wireless technology a fashion statement."

He might also be regarded as the phone industry's answer to Jonathan Ive, the British design whiz behind iPod. And Nuovo likes to toss some figures around to counter all the fuss surrounding those little music players. " How many iPods has Apple sold? Ten million? We've done 25 million smart phones [those with cameras and/or music players]." He believes Apple has enjoyed "a great moment in the sun" but that its success is far from sustainable. The new musical Nokia, the N91, can store 3,000 songs on a 4Gb hard drive, like an iPod mini. Ringtones are big business, but with the N91, songs themselves can be downloaded straight to the handset or via a computer, and it has a 2 megapixel camera too.

A one-time jazz drummer from the arty town of Monterey, Nuovo comes across as the quintessential Californian creative. He certainly reckons that Big Sur was conducive to Big Ideas. "That community attracts so many creative people," he says. "As a kid, I once met Ansel Adams in the doctor's office."

Being arty was one thing, but Nuovo wasn't about to starve in a garret: "I certainly wasn't attracted by the 'artistic struggle'. I grew up with Star Trek and 2001 and I loved all those little objects. I wanted to invent things that were successful; that changed people's lives."

A stint with the hugely regarded team Designworks followed, where Nuovo turned his hand to BMWs, furniture and the very first mobiles, before joining Nokia full time. It's designing phones that really gets him jumping. "Seven years ago, when phones were finally pocketable, people asked me why I didn't move on," he says. "But now is a great time for the industry. With multimedia, now it's about designing whole lifestyles."

Indeed, Nuovo's big thing is to hold back on all the whistles and bells - do we all really need zoom-in cameras, add-on keyboards and built-in MP3 players in our mobiles? - and concentrate on making sure there's the perfect handset to fit all differing lives. He likens meeting these needs to creating individual "digital pockets". As our requirements change through our lives, so we should be able to switch to another "digital pocket" - a new phone - to satisfy these needs.

Upcoming mobiles will feature novel work with rubber and velvet, keeping the fashion set happy, plus an altogether new challenge: personal security. "The future is about personal radar," he says. "The ability to know where you are, where your friends are and to have a greater sense of security in the environment you're in. People worry about Big Brother but what if we levelled the field and we all could be Big Brother? There's mobile technology available that can make us all feel safer."

Provided, presumably, that we don't have to go searching through our big bag of phones to find it first.

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