From an early mobile social network to high-megapixel cameras, Nokia was deeply innovative in its prime
In 2004, at a Nokia event in Helsinki, an engineer showed off a fancy new concept that he hoped would be a big hit. His "automatic multimedia diary" was a way to upload pictures, thoughts and other tidbits from a mobile phone to an online site. He called it a Lifeblog.
"Lifeblog is a PC and mobile phone software combination that effortlessly keeps a multimedia diary of the items you collect with your mobile phone," Christian Lindholm told me at the time.
"Lifeblog automatically organises your photos, videos, text messages and multimedia into a beautiful chronology you can easily browse, search and save. The phone part of Lifeblog automatically keeps track of your photos, videos and messages so you don’t have to."
Sound familiar? It was an early version of the social media mania we now know as Instagram and Snapchat. But it is probably more akin to Posterous and Tumblr, two of the great pioneers for uploading a "multimedia diary".
Much has changed in the past 15 years. Nokia was once the mightiest mobile manufacturer, making two out of three phones sold in the heady early 2000s. Back then a cellphone was a simple 2G handset that used the alphanumeric keypad as its interface. Calls and text messages were the mainstay of mobile communications for most of the 1990s, until rudimentary smartphones appeared.
The Nokia N95 was the device I recall most from those years. It was superb, took decent photos, and was really good with music. It had a sliding face that revealed the keypad at the bottom side and music control buttons (play/pause, skip back or forward) at the top. Its successor, the N96, was a dog — one of the signs that the end was beginning for the cellphone giant.
Nokia eventually realised it had lost its way and called in an outsider. CEO Stephen Elop was not only not Finnish but came from a longtime foe, Microsoft.
But in 2011 he realised Nokia was like a man "standing upon a burning platform", and had to choose between staying with its own operating system in the face of "intense heat" from Apple and Google’s Android, or a leap of faith.
He did the unthinkable and ditched Nokia’s own software efforts. To differentiate it from all the other Android phone makers, he made a bold — and fateful — call to go with the third operating system, Microsoft’s Windows Phone.
Within two years, Nokia had succumbed to the competition and an even more unthinkable thing happened: it was bought for $7.2bn in 2013 by Microsoft, whose own mobile ambitions had floundered. Microsoft’s CEO at the time, Steve Ballmer, called it a "bold step into the future" for both companies. It was a disaster. Two years later Microsoft laid off 7,800 employees and wrote off $7.6bn.
The effect on Finland — to which Nokia contributed one quarter of growth from 1998 to 2007 and a fifth of its exports — was devastating. It was more than just the death of an iconic, industry-leading company. It shattered the national identity. It had made Finland a leader in the mobile world. It led the early 2G mobile revolution. Even with these rudimentary phones you could buy things or pay for parking by sending an SMS. It was mobile commerce in full swing just as e-commerce was gaining traction.
Nokia was incredibly innovative in its time but missed the smartphone revolution. In 2013 it produced a 41-megapixel camera phone, the Lumia 1020, using a combination of software and lenses it called PureView. Before that, Nokia had understood how important location-based services would become and invested in mapping technology. Its Here maps division was bought by a consortium of the major car manufacturers.
As last week’s Nordic IoT Week I met several ex-Nokia employees who have started their own tech and software businesses. It created a secondary wave of entrepreneurs and innovators.
And, as Lindholm’s Lifeblog showed, Nokia understood social media. But like so many other great ideas it had, it just couldn’t focus on the key ones.
When Microsoft shut down its handset division, some Nokia executives reclaimed the name and restarted making phones as HMD Global. They offer a plain "vanilla" version of Android in their beautifully crafted handsets. The most recent is the Nokia 9 PureView, which has five high-megapixel cameras and takes exquisite pictures. The old Nokia is no more. Long live the new Nokia.