Coming to America

There’s a major executive shakeup taking place atop Finnish embedded touch user interface (UI) startup Rightware. The three year old company, which counts Audi, Qualcomm, China Mobile, Samsung, and other global giants as customers, will appoint current board member and former senior Nokia executive Jonas Geust as its new CEO. Founding CEO Tero Sarkkinen will become President of US operations, moving to the company’s Silicon Valley offices and joining recently appointed chief sales officer Roy Taylor.

Rightware offers a platform for developing unique and sophisticated user interfaces for touch-based devices. Sarkkinen has said on several occasions, “Our mission is to beautify every pixel on a screen.” The startup has seen its platform utilized to the greatest extent in modernize automotive in-dash infotainment systems, including by Audi and Volvo. The company is also recognized as having designed the first-ever stereoscopic 3D home screen for Android devices. With a latest version of its UX development platform, dubbed Kanzi 2.5.2, rolling out this past October, the company aims to expand into new markets including, smart TVs, tablets, and other embedded devices and verticals.

Kanzi is platform agnostic meaning it can be used to develop for Android, iOS, or other frameworks, while including a UI engine, design tools, and comprehensive graphics effects libraries. The biggest advantage of the platform, according to new CEO Geust, is that it makes the development of more advanced and high-performance user interfaces more consistent and efficient. As an example, he reports that Rightware’s existing automotive partners have seen a 10X reduction in development time since deploying Kanzi, thereby enabling more rapid development with existing resources, and thus more innovation.

Although Rightware has had success in attracting large multi-national corporations as customers, the company is equally interested in working with smaller, “more nimble” clients, to borrow Geust’s words. Users of Kanzi license the technology from Rightware, and also typically pay for ongoing professional services including training and on-site support.

Newly appointed CEO Geust has been a board member at Rightware since 2010 and previously spent 15 years at Nokia, including in his final role as VP of N-Series smartphones. During that time he was intimately involved in the use of 3D user experiences in everything from cars and videogames to touch screen mobile devices. Prior to his move to the US, former CEO Sarkkinen relocated to Shanghai in Aug 2011 to lead the company’s Asian expansion.

Geust is quick to admit that one of the biggest challenges facing his rapidly growing company is brand awareness in the North American market. His company has already bagged Qualcomm and a few smaller clients, not to mention is reportedly in active discussions with other notable names, but remains nowhere near the level of ubiquity that it will need to achieve its ambitious goals. Changing this is no small feat for a non-native company, regardless of the polish of its product.

Also, as we have discussed at length, there is a design revolution taking place in the tech industry at the moment, with many companies dedicating additional internal resources to the development of user experiences. Rightware will have to compete with this trend, justifying the use of its external solutions. As Apple has seemingly shown everyone, owning every aspect of your product, from software to hardware, offers the ultimate in synergy and control.

Rightware will also add former Nokia Senior Engineering Manager Jari Selin as its new Director of Kanzi Product Development, and has appointed former EmblaCom CFO Jussi Tammi as VP of Finance.

Rightware raised €3 million (at the time $4.29 million USD) in Series A funding in January 2010 co-led by Nexit Ventures and Inventure. According to Geust, the current international expansion is a critical precursor to a likely follow on round which it will look more seriously into closing toward the end of 2013. The company currently has 50 worldwide employees and plans to “shift into the next gear,” according to its new CEO, in terms of hiring, product development, and customer acquisition. The former two categories will be Geust’s purview, while founder and therefore natural brand champion Sarkkinen will focus on the latter.

Geust’s thesis that “touch interfaces will be everywhere in the future” seems like an inevitability. If his company can extend its reputation as one of the foremost developers of interfaces for these disparate devices then it is likely to have a significant role in the next era of pervasive computing.

But this is no foregone conclusion. The coming year will go a long way toward dictating the lasting impact Rightware will have on North American tech. As a fan of the Audi infotainment interface, and of beautiful UX in general, I hope to see Kanzi used in more places. Geust and Sarkkinen are doing more than hoping.