Bob Iannucci has been in the IT industry for the last three decades, first at IBM at the time of the mainframes, then at Digital with its minis, and then in the '90s, at Compaq. But since the first of January, he is the new chief technology officer of Nokia. He is also the first member of the board who is not based in Finland, remaining in Palo Alto, California, where he has headed the Nokia Research Centre since 2004.

In this interview, Iannucci shares his impressions of the industry. First of all, he believes the mobile OS has not yet made its debut – and of course he hopes that Nokia and its partners will develop it. But his main mission is to help Nokia achieve the company’s new dream, to succeed in its transition from a mobile company to an Internet service and appliance provider. In other words, as mobile phones become a commodity, it is time for Nokia to give up that market and reinvent itself once again, just as it has many times since 1865 when the company started as paper mill. That’s Bob Iannucci’s mission. So beware, Google and Apple.

Computerworld: Which are your responsibilities/challenges heading Nokia Research?

Iannucci: My responsibility for Nokia Research Centre, which is about 850 R&D people out of the company's total population of 14,500. We have laboratories in Beijing, Tokyo, Palo Alto - where I’m based, Cambridge, Massachusetts, Cambridge, UK, Germany, and Finland.

Some IT industries focus their work based on a 10-year road map. Could you describe the road map for wireless technology development for the next 10 years?

It’s a good question. The way that we work in NRC is that we take a seven-year time horizon for our strategy and we try to adjust it to Nokia strategy and the challenges, and also look beyond that.

So what do you envision seven years from now?

It’s pretty difficult to predict business that far out. What we believe is going to happen in the next period is that the devices will become increasingly invisible. The communication will be pervasive. We won’t think about wireless bandwidth speeds, because bandwidth is readily available, and probably the biggest change is that we see value shifting from devices to services and software, and that is one of the main reasons why we are reorganising the company.

My own personal background is that I come from the computing world. I used to work at IBM, I used to work at Digital Equipment, and I show people this is like seeing a movie for the fourth of fifth time. I saw what happened with mainframes as value went from hardware to software to services, and then with minicomputers and so on.

And now it feels very much the same except that for mobility it’s kind of like it happened in the PC world, it’s like 1982 or 1983. The standard platforms, the IBM PC of the mobile world haven’t emerged yet. So what would happen then over the next seven years? Some dominant platform will emerge. It will garnish substantial investment from third parties in building up a very significant space of software.

When we talk about application dotcoms right now, it’s a tiny fraction of what’s going to happen in the next seven years. Much of the services, if not most of the services, will be tied in the Internet or what the Internet becomes; this will be the heart of your digital identity for transactions or your personal life, for example.

What we see in devices right now will move more in the direction of fashion as a differentiator rather than core functionality. In the seven-year period, everyone will have high bandwidth, everyone will have low power, and everyone will have long battery life.

You said you believe the Internet would become something very different than today’s. How is that so?

I believe so. Honestly thinking, I think mobility and wireless access with high performance computing in your hand has the potential to reshape the Internet. What do I mean by that? Today, the Internet experience for you and for me if we go to a search engine or open up a website will pretty much be the same thing. But imagine if we could deliver to your mobile device information that is tailored for your personal needs? It can present a very different experience to you than it presents to me, much more tailored.

We see the industry moving in small steps towards that direction. There is great value in tailoring and delivering information that is truly personal and mobile devices inherently have the potential to deliver a better-tailored experience than a desktop device, because the mobile goes with you and it is wherever you’re at. That’s the different context. The machine that sits on your desktop is your desktop. So, the possibility for reshaping the Internet and making it context aware and very much tailored to your digital identity is something that we will play out strongly and will be a driving force in the Internet.

I partially agree with you, but we still have to deal with these tiny screens. Everybody says the new devices are great, but the screens are awful. In a moment when we are watching the development of new kinds of screens that are flat or wide, made of polymers and flexible, don’t you think they could be a solution for this mobile small-screen dilemma?

Yes. I agree with that completely and I would say it a little bit stronger. The world’s information is increasingly being authored for a 1024-by-768 Web screen. It is not being authored for little screens like that. And that’s fine. What that means is that for a mobile device we have to either figure out how to dramatically increase the available pixels on the device or borrow them from something. I mean, just look around, there’s a lot of screens that you see. ... Could you imagine a world with the notion of displays everywhere, displays almost painted on walls? In seven years it will be very common.

So as I walk up to a display, maybe I just tap on the screen and use it as my own screen. That’s very easy to imagine. But even so, we are looking at shorter-range solutions that involve projected displays. That technology is now at least in the early stages. You can buy little projectors and experiment on them with your mobile phone. There’s actually hope for wearable displays as well. Many people have experimented with these. But I think there will be a lot of solutions. But your observation is exactly right. The world’s information is authored for a big screen and next year it will be authored for a bigger screen. So there is no excuse for not having the availability of a laptop screen for a mobile device.

How do you envision wireless and/or telecom technology by 2020? How’s the research on ultra-high bandwidth wireless technology?

One of the great trends at NRC is our radio expertise, most of it located in Finland. One important difference, though, is that several services are developed for licensed or unlicensed bands and that will continue to grow, bandwidth will increase, and the important thing on the design of new devices is to make them radio agnostic, so that we can use whatever radio is available, moment by moment, in order to maximise flexibility to the user. So we will be sort of broad in our acceptance of radio protocols, but focused on using Internet protocols.

Is there any technological barrier you face?

Well, there are a couple of physical limits that we face and probably the hardest physical limit is called the 3-watt limit and that statement is very simple: A device that you can hold in your hand can’t dissipate more than 3 watts until you put it down. (The 3-watt limit is the full legal output power limit for a mobile phone in the US.) It’s not a statement about the battery, it’s about heat dissipation. So that means that whatever we put in the mobile phone ... everything has to live within a 3-watt limit.

Now, in the world where I came from, we used to build mainframes, but we never really cared a lot about the energy that was exchanged, and we apply many of those supercomputer ideas in designing a computer that goes into these things, with that 3-watt limit as a hard physical limit. It’s not a limit that just Nokia faces, everybody faces it. It comes from physics. And that’s both a limitation and an opportunity. Most great engineering ideas have at the heart some limitation like that. That drives creativity.

We have much more computing efficiency, we compute much more efficiently here [he shows his mobile phone] than any datacentre does, because we have to. And that will continue to drive what we do. The performance in this phone exceeds the performance, you know when you and I both started in this business when the early PCs were out (by 1981), nothing compares to this.

Last June, an MIT team announced in Science magazine that it had experimentally demonstrated wireless power transfer, a new technology that is potentially useful for powering laptops, cell phones without cords. Does it open the possibility for us in the future to recharge our phones through the air?

Absolutely, we’re following this research and there are several companies that have sort of sprung up around this wireless power thing. I would say it’s pretty early to say when and where it will show up in products. ... Wireless power safety has always been in the future, but now this research seems to open a new avenue and we share the view that this provides real emerging direction.

Could that mean the end of our hundred-year dependency on batteries?

Maybe. I think it’s likely that there will be energy storage in some form in the device and the nature of batteries is probably going to change. The nanoscientists and what they are doing at the University of Cambridge points to that direction. We’re looking at technologies that could only be made on nanoscale to create energy storage devices that are sort of a hybrid between a battery and a capacitor. A supercapacitor probably is the best description for that. And maybe that wireless power becomes a long-term direction when you’ll have some capabilities for energy storage. When you’re outside the range of your local wireless power transmitter you can still operate, or you’re in range, recharge it.

You talked about nanotechnology. Do you remember when Bill Joy, Sun’s former CTO, wrote in 2000 a famous manifesto in Wired magazine warning this convergence could represent a threat to humankind's very existence? In this respect, what’s your impression of NBIC (nanoscience, biotechnology, information technology and cognitive science) convergence?

We’re actually looking deep into the nanoscience and I would say it is too early for us to draw any profound conclusions, but we see it as an area of increasing importance to us, and one where we must invest and must understand. It’s not something that we can just simply say, well, this is a technology that our suppliers will use. Rather, it’s something where we may actually seek to contribute.

You said that you worked in the mainframe time at IBM and Digital. So, there is this unwritten rule about the information industry that the company that dominates one computing generation never succeeds to transfer its control to the next generation. That was the case with IBM and mainframes, and Digital with minis, and it seems to be the same with Microsoft and the PC. The mobile business is clearly dominated by Nokia right now, as well as it’s clear that the next step will be about applications. Does this mean that Nokia’s main competitors would be Google and Apple?

Well, two things to say about that. First of all, Nokia is a strong believer in open innovation, so building the next phase of the industry is something that we expect to do together with partners, not something that I would say that we would be the only player. Second thing is, you raised this issue that to me is best described by Clayton Christensen of Harvard Business School, the so-called innovator’s dilemma. If you’re good at one thing, it makes it very hard to transition to the next step. And there are plenty of examples of companies that tried to invent themselves out of a successful business into something new.

When I was at Compaq, we studied this actually fairly deeply, and the one company that kept coming up as a counter example for this was Nokia. Look at Nokia’s history. We started out making paper pulp (in 1865) and then that led to rubber boots (in 1898), which then led to electrical cable installation (in 1912), which led to electronics (in 1960), and consumer electronics, telecommunication, mobile phones (in 1981). Each time the company gave up a profitable business and moved for a growth business.

If you look at what we’re doing now it’s not unlike that, very much the same sort of thing. And I like to believe that it’s in our DNA, that we know how to move from a profitable business into a growth business. In the PC world, we saw the DECs and Compaqs increasingly faced margin pressure because the value chain was reshaping. The same thing will happen with the mobile industry; value will shift ... So that’s why I think it’s time for Nokia to make these early bets in areas that if the rules of economics continue to apply we’ll become dominant in the future. One day devices won’t be the centre-point just as one day mainframes once dominated.

It’s just like TV sets. It doesn’t matter which TV set you buy, you want to see the movie, right?

That’s right!