The Finn’s finale

Reading Time: 3 minutes

BitDepth#937 for May 20

In 2006, Nokia had a web ready tablet called the 770 Internet Tablet. Like so many of the company’s best ideas, almost nobody ever heard about it. Photograph by Mark Lyndersay.
In 2006, Nokia had a web ready tablet called the 770 Internet Tablet. Like so many of the company’s best ideas, almost nobody ever heard about it. Photograph by Mark Lyndersay.

I’m quite fond of that very old Trini saying, “time is longer than twine.”

You’ve got to be of a certain vintage to have even heard it, but I’ve found it to be a deliciously succinct way of measuring the relentless march of days against the enthusiasms and vagaries of people’s efforts to bring order to their lives.

The aphorism resonated while I looked through my notes from Nokia’s Open Studio, the company’s huge engagement with world media in April 2006 in Berlin.

It was a remarkable time for the company. The iPhone was a year away, and no hint of it existed in the technology landscape.

Nokia was up against Palm, whose early smartphone hadn’t kept pace with consumer expectations and the software platform was faltering.

Nokia was confident they could step into that space and conquer it. The company boasted that of the 50 million smartphones in use globally by Q4, 2005, Nokia held 54 per cent of the market.

Between November 2005 and July 2007, Nokia would buy Intellisync Corporation, Loudeye music distribution, Twango, a media sharing solution and merge with Siemens to create their famed NoHo facility in Espoo, Finland.

The acquisitions would continue until 2012, the company snapping up Enpocket, Navteq, OZ Communications, Plum Ventures, Novarra, MetaCarta, Smarterphone and Scalada, spending billions on products that disappeared into the company’s maw.

They didn’t dump Symbian quickly enough or successfully develop a touch friendly operating system for their hardware.

In 2006, Symbian was enjoying its last hurrah as an OS for smartphones. The graphics were crisp and the functionality useful, but navigating a phone’s interface with little buttons was about to be nuked by Apple’s iPhone.

Nokia trotted out their best and brightest for the media at Open Studio in 2006. In one private session after another brilliant designers demonstrated the technology that the company was working on.

Pekka Pohjakallio, the largely unsung design genius of Nokia’s mobile group, talked about how usability drove the look and feel of the new N series phones.

So many clever minds with so many bright ideas.

Ari Virtanen demonstrated the Nokia 770 Internet Tablet, a handheld device running Debian Linux so far ahead of its time that nobody at Nokia seemed to know what to do with it.

How did the company go from there to the announcement in April 2014, almost exactly eight years later, that it had been successfully acquired by Microsoft?

There’s no single answer to that, though some of the clues were there at the Open Studio event but are only apparent with the clarity of hindsight.

Ideas were buzzing around Nokia like crazed sugar flies over molasses but there seemed to be no guiding authority defining the company’s approach.

The N series was gorgeous. I took an N80 away from the event along with everyone else from the Latin American contingent and used it cheerfully for years.

It was a solid phone, with a durable metal case and a camera with a Carl Zeiss lens, but inside the OS was clunky and hard to navigate, particularly after the iPhone hit the market. The sensor behind that impressive lens was awful, producing murky images even in brilliant sunlight.

Despite those setbacks, what killed the series was that it was invisible outside of Europe. Nokia didn’t sell it in the US and that made it a poor choice for Caribbean users.

No less a person than Stephen Elop, incoming CEO of Nokia summarised the situation in 2011 from an insider’s perspective with the notorious “burning platform” memo.

Two weeks ago, Nokia’s mobile business effectively came to an end. It is now a division of Microsoft, operating as Microsoft Mobile Oy with a new mission as the provider of a platform for Windows Phone 8.

What that will mean is still to be defined, but it’s unlikely to bear any likeness to the company that hosted me in Berlin in 2006.

That’s probably a good thing, but it’s ultimately a sad thing too.

Links

Reporting from Nokia’s Open Studio in Berlin is archived here and here.