“They had so much market share a few years ago. What went wrong?”
The query came with a wry grin from the former Nokia (now Microsoft) Store in Delhi. It is a store from which I had bought my first three Nokia devices – the N70, the E61i and the N95 8 GB, in a period spanning 2006-2009. And as he put up banners for the latest Lumia devices – the 950 and 950 XL – which now come with Microsoft’s branding and went on sale over the weekend, he asked the question that many have in the past. Nokia had had a seeming stranglehold on the phone market in 2009. Why then did it suddenly find itself selling its phone business a mere five years later to Microsoft?
The standard answer generally is that the company failed to innovate speedily in the face of high class competition from Apple and the Android-powered HTC and Samsung.
That, however, is not the complete truth. For although not too many realise it, Nokia had actually spotted and even invested in some of the trends that would spur the smartphone revolution. Ironically, however, the company could not really cash in on them, while the competition did. Sounds hard to believe? Well, here are ten – yes, TEN – trends that the Finnish company had spotted before the competition could. If only it had backed them up more thoroughly…but then, as John Greenleaf Whittier so memorably wrote: “For all sad words of tongue and pen, the saddest are these: it might have been…”
In 2005, at a time when the storage on most handsets was measured in megabytes (MB), Nokia announced the N91, with a hard drive (yes!) of 4 GB (an 8 GB version came later). No, it was not the first smartphone to feature a hard drive with a capacity that ran into gigabytes (that was perhaps the SGH-i300 from a Korean company that was trying to make its presence felt in the smartphone market – it was called Samsung), but it was easily the most famous. Its launch was delayed by almost a year and it was dogged by software issues, but many loved its metallic design and fantastic audio quality. It was designed innovatively too – the front has dedicated music controls, which slid back to reveal an alphanumeric keypad. It was supposed to give the iPod a run for its money, but its expensive price tag and buggy software stopped it from becoming a runaway hit. Nokia did have 8 GB versions of some of its later devices – the N95 and N81, most notably – but big storage was not a staple version of its devices for a while.
Yes, we know that it was Sony’s Cyber-Shot range that gave smartphone cameras respectability, but to Nokia goes the credit of coming out with perhaps the first really popular phone that gave digital point and shooters a run for their money. That was the N95 in 2007, of course, which featured a very good 5.0-megapixel snapper and which in spite of the slightly laggy Symbian OS, still took fantastic photographs and pretty much knocked Sony off the “best camera phone” perch. And Nokia maintained this reputation for excellent cameras on its flagships right till the end – the 41.0-megapixel shooters on the Pureview 808 and Lumia 1020 showed just what the company could do. The problem was that these superb cameras were limited to the top end of its phone range – lower priced phones had markedly inferior cameras. It was a weakness the company’s competition would cash in on.
Blending feature phones and smartphones
In 2005, the worlds of smartphones and feature phones were two entirely different ones. Smartphones were supposed to be the preserve of the enterprise crowd, and inevitably came with either QWERTY keyboards and/or styluses, while feature phones (also called “multimedia phones” by some) focused on cameras and music, areas which were supposed to be of little interest to the productivity crowd. Nokia to its credit was the most notable player to offer good cameras and music on smartphones – the N series was known for its multimedia muscle but actually ran on the Symbian OS that also powered Nokia’s famous enterprise-oriented E Series. The problem, perhaps was that Nokia never really stressed the smartphone side of these devices – not too many knew that a relatively affordable N series device could handle mail, accommodate apps and browse the Web. In fact, until the N95 came along with its “is this what computers will become?” line, many N series users did not even known they had a smartphone and therefore never really tried out its “smart” side.
Apps and widgets
Yes, you read that right. Although many attribute the decline of Nokia to the fact that its operating system (first Symbian and then Windows Phone) to the fact that neither OS had enough quality apps, the fact is that in the 2006-2008 period, Nokia phones were perhaps the ones that had the most apps and even widgets (although Nokia called them Widsets – tiny apps that pulled data from websites and showed them on your phone). The problem was that there was no standard app store for them for a while – one spent hours hunting for .sis files on either the WAP sites of operators or on websites like Download.com and Getjar. The absence of an organised market place would hurt the brand – the Ovi Store simply came too late in the day.
It never really got the credit it deserved, but Nokia’s phones featured perhaps the first truly cult mobile game – Snake. And the company also threw its tech kitchen sink at the mobile phone gaming market well before anyone else did – it released the N-Gage phone which tried to bring a great gaming experience to a phone as far back as 2003 with a display that was placed between two keyboards, giving it a PSP-like feel. The phone unfortunately did not do well thanks to some UI issues and the lack of compatible games, even though its successor the N-Gage QD did slightly better. Nokia tried to then bring out N-Gage as a gaming platform but once again, the relative scarcity of games – and the fact that it did not work on all of its devices – let it down.
A lot of people very erroneously reported that the Nokia 5800 Xpress Music released in 2008 was its first touchscreen phone. The truth was that the company had already released a full touch device, the Nokia 7710 as far back as 2004, with a 3.5 inch touchscreen with a resolution of 640 x 320 (ironically, higher than the 480 x 320 resolution on the first iPhone which came three years later). The phone ran a touch-friendly version of Symbian OS but the absence of compatible apps and a slightly buggy interface made Nokia continue to focus on button driven devices.
Large screen phones
Be it the 3.5 inch display on the all touch 7710 or the 4.0-inch internal display on the E90 Communicator, Nokia clearly realised that there was a market for devices with larger displays – even the button-driven E61i and N95 8 GB had 2.8 inch displays, which were large for their time. However, these were largely restricted to high-end devices. Even after moving to Windows Phone, Nokia perhaps came out with the Lumia 1520 which featured a massive 6.0-inch display. But it delayed making a mainstream phablet for perhaps too long (although the Lumia 1320 sold briskly once its price reached the Rs 15,000 mark).
Long before Google Maps became a rage (and Apple Maps the butt of so many jokes), Nokia had its own maps and navigation, and even a series of phones designed for navigation, called the Navigator series. The problem, however, was that the maps needed to be downloaded on to the device (not easy in the pre 2010 era of poor bandwidth) and initially even came with price tags. What’s more, they only worked on a limited number of phones. Google stole a march when it released Google Maps which would work even on devices without GPS (using triangulation based on the location of signal transmission towers), and required zero installation. Nokia Maps remained more powerful and accurate and even came with navigation in Indian languages, but could never really make up on lost ground.
Music and radio
Many was the wry grin from the Nokia camp when the likes of Apple and Google announced their music services – many of Nokia’s devices used to come with access to Nokia’s massive library of music with unlimited downloads for periods of anything from three months to a year. Nokia also had its own radio app well before its competitors did. Why they never took off the way they should have remains a mystery – for they worked quite brilliantly.
Yes, we know the punditry calls this the age of low cost smartphones, but the fact is that Nokia had a smartphone running Symbian S60 available for Rs 9999 in 2006 in India – the 6600. Yes, people made fun of the fact that it was bulky, slow, had a mediocre camera and was a bit of an eyesore but for many geeks on a tight budget, it was mobile manna. And to be fair, Nokia always was a presence in the budget smartphone market, delivering devices like the E51 and E5, which were very good value for money and even after moving to Windows Phone, rocked Android with the Lumia 510, 520 and 525. However, the period after that saw it lose out to the Chinese smartphone invasion in specs and experience.