Ina Fried

Recent Posts by Ina Fried

Nokia, Silicon Valley Giant?

When one thinks of Silicon Valley tech companies, Nokia is hardly a name that comes to mind. But the company has amassed a decent presence in the Valley, with about 500 people working on everything from research to inking deals with Web giants to building the features that the company hopes will someday soon return it to the forefront of the smartphone market.

In fact, the Bay Area unit was one of the first parts of Nokia that CEO Stephen Elop visited when he took the job earlier this year–in part because the company’s board had already scheduled to have its meeting in the area.

Silicon Valley has slowly become an important spot for the company, despite the fact that Nokia doesn’t sell all that many smartphones in the U.S.

Earlier this month, the company’s area employees got a new home as Nokia consolidated nearly all of its Bay Area workers in new offices in Sunnyvale (see picture above). Each floor of the Finnish-style interior has self-standing structures that from the outside look like saunas, but are actually “privacy huts” used for small group meetings or just some alone time pondering the ins and outs of the cellphone business. Nokia kept its research labs in Palo Alto and Berkeley so they could stay close to the area’s top two universities.

The local staff is doing a range of different things. About 50 of Nokia’s Silicon Valley employees come from the company’s 2008 purchase of a Norweigian company called Trolltech, which makes an application platform called QT that is used to control everything from phones to trains and more.

There are also a variety of individuals and small groups working on various product and research efforts. Kari Pulli is a Nokia Fellow who focuses on camera technology. He helped develop a panorama photo feature that is part of the latest Nokia cellphones. His team also developed an HDR photography capability–a feature Pulli reminds people was added to Nokia’s phones before Apple included it in the iPhone. He said his team is currently working on techniques to improve cellphone pictures taken in low-light conditions.

Typically, such photos are either noisy or blurry, depending on what step is taken to compensate for the lack of light. But by taking two pictures–one picture that aims to be sharp, though noisy, and another that will be a bit blurry, but have low noise–he said that a better composite image can be created.

Pulli, who was born in Finland but has spent the past four years in Palo Alto, said he is not too worried that the new Nokia chief is not Finnish. “At least he’s Canadian,” Pulli said, pointing out it’s another cold, dark place that loves hockey. (Elop does love hockey.)

While some of Nokia’s workforce is building new features, others are working on making sure that the company has partnerships with all the important companies in the valley–especially the Facebooks and Twitters of the world.

As for the research projects, they vary widely, and many are only tangentially related to Nokia’s core phone-making business.

Tico Ballagas is a user experience researcher working on how to make technology a better tool for family communications. So he’s been spending a lot of time with Elmo as part of a Family Story Play project to see if distant relatives can better connect with young relatives by reading a story to them over videoconferencing gear.

Meanwhile, Jorg Brakensiek is working with a number of German carmakers to develop a framework known as Terminal Mode, which would allow all manner of smartphones to be usable within cars without users having to stare down at a screen to make use features like maps, email and more.

What many at the offices lament, though, is the fact that so few of the people in the U.S. get a chance to appreciate their work. While Nokia certainly has its challenges globally, it is all but invisible at the cutting edge of the U.S. market. that’s because none of the major carriers here sell a subsidized model of the company’s high-end phones.

What’s worse, the phones that the carriers do sell tend to be the most basic and boring of cellular designs. The company has plans to change that next year, when it hopes the introduction of Meego-based phones will finally sway U.S. carriers to offer subsidized Nokia smartphones, ideally by next summer.


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