Milo Yiannopoulos says that the manufacturer of robust handsets we knew and loved has gone, replaced by an uninspiring prototype factory for Microsoft’s latest vanity operating systems.
We rarely cover hardware here at The Kernel, but after examining several new Nokia devices this afternoon under the auspices of the Finnish giant’s delightfully attentive public relations executives, and learning from Robin Wauters this week that Nokia is no longer the most valuable Finnish company, I felt moved to make a few remarks about everyone’s former favourite mobile phone manufacturer.
Those with long memories will remember that Nokia began as a rubber factory. If they can pivot from wellies to phones, surely anything is possible. And yet the hardware giant has proven surprisingly resilient to clever ideas. It is paying the price with nosediving profits.
As has been written ad nauseam by inferior technology publications, there was a time when no home in America or western Europe was without a drawer full of Nokia chargers. The things were so ubiquitous that manufacturers of entirely different sorts of electronic equipment made their devices work with these chargers – and made a song and dance about it, too.
And the phones themselves were everywhere. Literally everywhere. The iconic Grande Valse, known colloquially and on later models as the “Nokia Tune”, was omnipresent. Much hilarity ensued whenever it rang out in a public place: twenty people would hurry to their coat pockets to determine whether they were the recipient of the call.
More astonishing still, and perhaps most intriguingly for those of us interested in the effect technology can have on our bodies, research was carried out at the University of Manchester in 2005 – unfortunately it remains unpublished – that discovered a heightened awareness of a very specific frequency range in the hearing of almost every person in Britain of roughly my age – that is, people who were born in the early to mid-eighties.
The explanation? Nokia’s default text message sound, a high-pitched double-beep, repeated twice, which was the standard sound on the most common mobile devices sold in the early 2000s. Literally millions of us unconsciously trained our brains into hypersensitivity so we could hear the tone go off in crowded rooms and from within jacket pockets and in handbags.
Nokia responded to these extraordinary monopolistic victories in depressingly foreseeable ways: almost as soon as the company achieved saturation of the market, they changed their chargers. And, somewhere around 2007, they swapped out their default ringtones and alert sounds, too. Things have been getting steadily worse ever since, as the company, with terrifyingly methodical precision, jettisons everything that made its products popular in the first place.
Although a few rogue models like 2007’s N95 were popular with bloggers and Left-wing activists, thanks to their sound cameras and good battery life, mis-steps like the utterly bizarre 7380 (disclosure: I totally bought one) were to set the tone. People in developed markets stopped buying Nokia phones, and innovation at the company appeared to dry up.
In February last year, Nokia announced a deal with Microsoft: a sure sign things were commercially desperate for both parties, given Windows Mobile’s failure to wrest market share from the iPhone, Nokia’s widely publicised share price free-fall and the vast licence fee that changed hands. Predictably, the union of underdogs hasn’t quite gone as planned.
The latest mobile telephone from Nokia, the Lumia 900, was not available to UK reviewers when I contacted Nokia’s public relations agency yesterday, and no date was given as to when that situation might change. Utter stupidity, in the age when Apple launches new iPhones in dozens of markets simultaneously. And, you know, when people have the internet and can read reviews from the States.
So we turn to America for an assessment of what Nokia hopes will be its saviour. The Lumia 900, which at first looks as if it could be the strongest challenger to Cupertino not running Android, was reviewed well in some quarters this week, but was painfully stung by a widely-read assessment from The Verge’s Joshua Topolsky yesterday.
He said: “What a colossal waste of silicon. This ludicrous, last-ditch attempt by a has-been Eurotrash idea vacuum, replete with the hideous, garish, emblazoned nightmare of Windows Phone, deserves to be consigned to the dustbin of excruciatingly disappointing, over-hyped failures.”
OK, so that’s not quite what he said. He actually wrote, “I really wanted to love this phone… but while the hardware delivers, the phone as a whole does not” – but I think you get the picture.
Windows Phone, the new operating system these handsets run, is slick and clever. But it’s only slick and clever by Microsoft’s standards, and its gimmickry doesn’t make up for the years that have been wasted in Nokia’s R&D labs. Nor is it a match for iOS, which has captured the mainstream consumer imagination so comprehensively that it informs the purchasing decisions even of people who have no intention of taking home Apple devices.
Oh. While I have you, let me clear up a little misunderstanding that has been circulating since details of the Lumia 900 were released. The low retail price of $100 is not to be welcomed. There’s a simple reason: it spawns unedifying headlines about the phone being available “free of charge” and thus contributes, together with the rancid colour the test units have been shipping in, to a general sense of cheapness which renders the phone incapable of playing in the big leagues.
With the stakes so high, it’s an eyebrow-raising strategy for handset manufacturer and operating system provider alike, and it demonstrates, with a horribly saddening sense of certainty, that Nokia is beyond saving – especially by Redmond, whose only concerns with Windows Phone appear to be envy of the iPhone and the inexhaustible conceit of Steve Ballmer.
I am currently holding the Lumia 800, the 900’s six-month-old predecessor. It is a moderately attractive piece of kit. But I can’t help but think the ship has sailed for the once-mighty Nokia, given the reviews coming out of the States and the fact that this handset range is shackled to a vanity platform. The 900, if our colleagues overseas are to be believed, is, as expected, an incremental upgrade and not the transformative product Nokia needed to reverse its fortunes.
There are very few rolls of the dice left. When you look around the devices themselves and into the Nokia ecosystem, the scent of death is heady. Desperate-sounding bungs to students to develop for the Lumia don’t exactly inspire commentators with confidence either: they suggest a platform that has failed to capture the imagination of developers. I’d be interested to learn how much Microsoft paid Twitter and Facebook to develop their Windows Phone apps.
Strange though it may seem to those of us who lived and loved with Nokias in our trousers throughout our youths, for whom Snake and its inferior successor Snake II were perpetual companions and who have had their ears forcibly sensitised to that narrow frequency of beep, in time we will come to terms with the loss of Nokia as a household brand. Sad to say: with each passing day, and each new underwhelming piece of hardware, it gets that little bit easier.
It seems cruel to point it out, less still to make an explicit comparison of the Lumia and recent BlackBerry models, but with the steely gazes of a thousand Apple fanboy tech bloggers mercilessly focused on the defects of Nokia’s underwhelming new toy, something tells me the public relations department at Research in Motion will be sleeping more soundly tonight than for some time. For once, they are being out-goofed.