On Nokia, Symbian and the iPhone 'changing everything'...

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I'd been sitting on this link for quite a while - it's from a year or so ago, but with the Nokia Store about to be frozen and with the sexy bit of Nokia itself about to be subsumed into Microsoft, it does seem that now might be a good time to wheel it out. Over on Quora, there's a lengthy but insightful analysis into Nokia and Symbian between 2004 and 2009, into what went right and what went horribly wrong. Some quotes and comments from me below....

[Reader's note: the original article appears to stop about 30% through - you need to click on the small 'more' link in order to see the whole piece!]

The (deliberately anonymous) author's background first:

I worked in a few roles from around 3 years prior to the iPhone launch and for about 2 years after, in positions that gave me access to their product pipeline, their future predictions and a lot of their research, we worked closely with telco operators and we even held high level discussions with the R&D people just as and after the iPhone was launched.  I consider it a fascinating time to have been in one of the most interesting industries.  

The one thing I would ask people to consider when looking back, was how different the world was then and how in fact Nokia were doing a lot of things very well.

 There follows a good summary of the things Nokia and Symbian did right, including:

This takes a large leap in imagination, but I remember vividly around 2005/2006 sitting through prophetic presentations about the future, they showed all manner of fanciful predictions about GPS enabled phones making it clear to people that their friends were near them, they showed people taking and sending photos to each other, sharing music playlists and alike. Nokia was all about using technology to bring people together, sharing experiences and all our the devices we made were very much about giving people the best technology that would make this possible. Looking back they pretty much got all the major trends we see now, location based services,apps,metatagging,  personalisation, sharing of images and music and the idea of the mobile as a wallet.  In fact as early as 2008, R/GA developed the Vine which is very similar to platforms like “Path” that are taking off today. In 2006 we had a Nokia device with a good camera and an App you could buy that you could use to improve your golf swing.   Don’t believe me, check this out !http://www.allaboutsymbian.com/r...

The issue we always faced was at the time, when speaking to even the most pioneering folk, nobody thought they wanted to do this, people saw no value at that time in this constant sharing.

Absolutely, it frustrated me a lot that Nokia was years ahead of its time and yet got no recognition when these concepts became commonplace five years later. As Winston Churchill is said to have said, 'history is written by the victors'. Or, in this case, perhaps by the victor's fanboys!

On the subject of convergence:

This seems hard to imagine now, but at the time we lived in a world of simple phones, music phones, email phones and camera phones. Nokia had a brand/business unit called NSeries, this was all about a pioneering solution that involved what we called “convergence”, no longer were these “phones” , they were more like computers that were tiny, we spent many years in meetings using the word “Mobile device” since the term phone was too simple and the term computer misleading. 

Regular readers may remember I wrote numerous articles on this subject, for example here.

And finally, on the positive side, on the subject of services:

Finally Nokia totally got that the whole experience was not just the phone, it was about extra services that enriched the experience, they spent millions developing maps, music services, integration of things like Flickr, and NGage. Again they were pretty ahead of the time offering unlimited music streaming, seamless uploading to the cloud, connected gaming, and all while trying to keep the operators happy by not taking traffic away from their wall gardens.

With so many positive, visionary aspects, what actually went wrong?

We spent years and years and years and millions of pounds trying to get these people that were telling us they wanted to share pictures, to share pictures, to share locations etc, but nobody was doing it, and now look at us. 

This is where the iPhone changed everything. Back on a Nokia N95, while it could do all and more than the iPhone could do and was sold way before, but it was a horrible experience... As a result, nobody did this, to share a photo on Flickr felt like an act of incredible promotion, or to show pictures of last night to friends in a bar felt self indulgent. 

The iPhone changed ALL of this, everything was completely intuitive, out of the box ready and above all else fun. Zooming was really fun, moving to the next picture felt wonderful,  uploading seamless and with that little progress bar moving, again rather delightful. With this ease of use, everyone wanted a go, suddenly this behaviour was not only acceptable, it was what you did. The iPhone above all else was a delight to use. 

Actually, I disagree that photo sharing was that difficult on S60 - once set up, it was only a click or two and up the photo went. The biggest issue was cultural in that only geeks did things like this. With ubiquitous connectivity, better phone cameras and bigger screens, people do now want to share their lives. Who knew? Oh yeah, Nokia did(!)

On the subject of a foothold in the US:

Again stepping back in time to 2006 or so, the world was very different. Nokia was killing the phone market globally, with crazy growth rates, margins and market dominance in every single market except the US. It was not considered a problem, with the whole of Africa, China and India providing about ½ the worlds population to go after and with no obvious competitors, the USA seemed like something that would finally come around.

Again it’s important to note that at that time the USA was WAY behind the rest of the world and very isolated from the technology that was commonplace in the rest of the world, when in 2006 I would work over here, I’d bring my latest Nokia devices and people would stare at these things in amazement.  In a world dominated by Clam shell phones and the RAZR, the idea of a phone with the proper Internet ( not the mobile Internet) was extraordinary.  

So when the iPhone launched in the US, it was a frenzy. For our trendy tech leader in Singapore the iPhone was a nicer way to do the things that they’d started to do a few years ago, the phone was slicker when it came to most things, but it was an incremental improvement. For the Americans it was a day when everything changed, there first glimpse into the new world and new behaviors they’d never even been told about. A paradigm shift in the world.

It's a fair enough argument that everyone underestimated how important the USA is in the tech media's eyes. As a Brit, I'm rather appalled by how USA-centric the tech world has become, but I don't see things changing any time soon.... Sadly.

On the subject of the iPhone and touch:

It sounds hard to believe, but when Nokia undertook focus groups it was always clear what phones should look like.  We had a lot of research to show that nobody wanted to use a phone with a touchscreen. People felt that they would worry about a big screen breaking, that the screen would get smudgy, that they’d feel awkward unless there was haptic feedback and that typing would be tricky. This is one of the best cases of people not knowing what they want until the see it. This for me was the greatest achievement of the Apple team and the best example in recent product design of people thinking in a whole new way. I have no idea to this day how it is that they made a screen that works so well and countered all these fears, all the research we ever saw showed this to be impossible. And early Touchscreens like the RIM Storm showed how hard it was to get right.

At the time, capacitive touch technology was insanely expensive, so credit to Apple for believing in it enough to press ahead with it in the original iPhone. Capacitive screens are now much, much cheaper of course.

Though the worries over breakage haven't really gone away, evidenced by the number of iPhone owners I see with smashed or cracked screens! 

On the subject of complexity or organisation:

Nokia had been making phones for years and sought to improve on market share by cornering every market. They had business units to deal with fashion phones, business phones, tech phones, and simple everyday phones.  They also had business units to set up music services, gaming services and more. Another level was the operator specific marketing teams.  

This created a monster, an incredible matrix structure launching more than 70 phones a year, with thousands of marketers and millions of lines of reporting. It’s easy to be critical, but this constant need for incremental growth and specialisation led to an inevitable lack of focus on something big and profound.

Absolutely. This is something that may come back, in time, to bite the likes of Samsung, currently doing the same in the Android world. And even today, I worry that Nokia has too many Lumia models. Less is more, as Apple (for one) have often proved.

The author concludes:

I hope this gives a balanced and fair argument. I’ve always had a lot of respect for Nokia and I don’t think they quite missed the boat in the way that many would see, but knowing what happened does give me incredible respect for what Apple. It also makes  me more disappointed with what Apple have done recently with relatively linear progression of the iPhone and iPad rather than the step change they made with the first devices. Apple really did change ALL the rules in mobile phone marketing.

There's quite a bit in the text that's not quoted above, so do take a look, plus read some of the responses. You can read the whole article, plus a number of equally interesting responses, here.

See also my own extensive 'Five things Nokia did right... and five things it did wrong'.

Source / Credit: Quora