Talent flees losers of the smartphone war

MALMO, Sweden — When Sony Ericsson’s X10 Mini was voted best European mobile phone design of 2010-2011, the Swedish-Japanese company had an embarrassing admission to make.

The phone’s designer, Per Ogren, had already left, frustrated at his company’s flailing response to the threat of the iPhone.

“From when I did my first concept until the time the actual product was out took, maybe, one-and-a-half or two years,” Ogren says. He spoke to GlobalPost in the open-plan office of Color Monkey, his new startup in Malmo, Sweden.

“For me two years is too long. I’m quite impatient. I like things to happen now.”

Read more on GlobalPost: Sony drops "Ericsson" brand

Color Monkey, which has since launched a couple of apps, VinylLove and runstar, is the latest of several new Scandinavian startups founded by designers and software engineers trained at Nokia and Sony Ericsson.

Sony Ericsson software engineers are also behind Nena Innovations, which built the popular Dino Madness Pinball app; Zaplox, which allows you to use a mobile phone to unlock doors and cars; TimeZynk, which lets mobile workforces keep time reports; and Combain, which uses Wi-Fi and radio signals to provide accurate mobile geographical positioning.

Alumni from Nokia, meanwhile, have founded Uplause, which designs social games for big crowd events, and Sports Tracker, one of the most popular mobile sports apps.

Ogren’s office is the stuff of startup cliché. It boasts two electric guitars, soft toys his team has designed, and a host of vinyl figurines.

There are a couple more apps in the pipeline, and plans for a line of T-shirts, soft toys and vinyl figurines.

“We wanted to be able to do different kinds of things. If you’re employed by Sony Ericsson, you can’t do T-shirts. It’s not going to happen,” he says.

Read more on GlobalPost: Consumer Electronics Show 2012

Back in 2001, Ogren led the design of Sony Ericsson’s T68 phone, and he went on to lead the design process of five other models, before leaving to join The Astonishing Tribe, a Malmo design company later bought by Research in Motion.

Sony Ericsson then lured him back in 2008 to lead the race to build an “iPhone killer.”

“I thought this is a perfect opportunity for me because there’s so much to do, to just scrap everything and start from the ground up,” he says.

But he soon realized that, with just 300 people working on its operating system, Sony Ericsson was not even in the running.

“I realized immediately after I came back that it was impossible to do what I set out to do,” he remembers. “The basic stuff was just to get finger-touch up and running, ditch the stylus, but even that was difficult.”

The X10 Mini, the world’s smallest touch-screen Android phone was his parting shot.

Read more on GlobalPost: Disaster Japan meets the global economy

“Everyone was trying to make iPhone-killers, and they were basically trying to make an iPhone. But Apple already makes an iPhone and they’re pretty good at it,” he explains. “I realized that there are no small, cheap, simple-to-use touch devices: a really small, touch screen phone that’s cheap, and that you could use with one hand, that was the essentials of it.”

In October, Sony agreed to buy out Ericsson’s share in Sony Ericsson, putting in question the future of its site in Lund, Sweden (outside Malmo).

In Finland, there were renewed rumors recently that Microsoft was poised to buy Nokia’s smartphone business.

But Ogren argues that since Google launched Android and open source software took off, designing phones and operating systems is no longer where the action is.

“Everything that we had been working on before, all of a sudden everything’s done for you. There is a really good text input with all the bells and whistles that you need, there’s a multi-tasking system. There’s a navigation structure. There’s event handling, and all the sorts of things that take a lot of time to do if you want to do it right.”

Instead, he is finding himself doing user-interface design for companies which a few years ago wouldn’t have dreamt of approaching customers through their mobile phones.

Read more on GlobalPost: Spain arrests 3 "hacktivists" for attacks on Sony, banks

“There are so many companies now that are moving into the app space, or doing new things that haven’t been in their core business before, but it opens up totally new possibilities for them,” he says.

He believes that as Sony Ericsson and Nokia continue to shed staff, more and more of their old employees will start creating apps for third parties, their own content, or games.

“During the crisis, when a lot of people lost their jobs, a lot of other people also realized they’re not as safe as they might have thought,” he argues. “That triggered people to think about what they’re doing, and how they’re working.”

But he doesn’t expect all of the software, management and design talent to find a home in startups.

“It’s too many people. I don’t know how many people who work at Sony Ericsson in Lund, but it must be 2,000 people or something and I don’t see there being like 1,000 startups from that building.”

And there are nonetheless elements he misses from his Sony Ericsson days.

“What I love the most is to create a wholeness, like a full product, which is what I did with my concept for the X10 Mini. That’s something that we’re not even close to being able to do here.”

Read more on GlobalPost: Ashton Kutcher puts Berlin tech companies on the map

Sign up for our daily newsletter

Sign up for The Top of the World, delivered to your inbox every weekday morning.