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‘People talked like they’re almost embarrassed’: Documentary shows rise and fall of Nokia’s mobile empire

In 2007, Nokia’s head of design got a call telling him to drop everything and return to Finland — the mobile industry had change forever.

If you’re like me and can remember a time before the internet, you probably had a Nokia mobile phone. Small, portable, cool and seemingly indestructible, Nokia was the undisputed king of the mobile market.

A small group of technicians in the tiny nordic country of Finland invented something that everyone would come to want — the mobile phone. Sure the Nokia 3310 didn’t unlock with your fingerprint, but it had Snake II and it was amazing.

In the emerging market of consumer mobile phones in the mid-1990s, the company reigned supreme for about 14 years. In 1995 Nokia employed 17,821 people in Finland and almost as many again around the world.

But while it was at the top of its game, it got bloated, complacent and overlooked a key innovation in mobile technology. As a result, it found itself as the protagonist in one of the biggest downfalls in modern corporate history.

Nokia’s mobile division has since become a cautionary tale and is the subject of a recent documentary, The Rise and Fall of Nokia Mobile, by filmmaker Arto Koskinen that airs on SBS Viceland on Friday night.

It’s a beautifully made film that traces the heady rise of the Nokia mobile phone and examines the difficult aftermath faced by former employees in Finland who changed the world but ultimately couldn’t keep up with their creation.

“For the past few years people have talked like they’re almost embarrassed of being at Nokia,” said Craig Livingstone, vice president of Nokia from 1992 to 2014.

“Or people have joy like, ‘Ah you Nokia people, look what happened to you,’” he said.

There are a number of sobering moments as the film conducts its autopsy but it’s a fascinating and nostalgic, if not upbeat, look back on the incredible rise of the Nokia mobile phone.


 

 
 

‘EVERYONE LAUGHED’ 

The film charts the humble beginnings of the first mobile phone conceived by a group of telecom technicians in the icy country in northern Europe.

In 1972, about 20 employees at Nokia worked on a phone that could go it people’s cars and manufactured 1612 of them.

Jorma Nieminen, the “father” of the Finnish mobile phone industry, remembered seeing a Nokia sales manager packing the contents of an early car phone device with a receiver, antenna and battery into a briefcase. When Nieminen asked what he was doing, he was told that some people wanted a portable phone to take around with them.

“That started the development of a mobile phone,” he said.

Former Nokia employee, Matti Makkonen — who is often called the father of text messaging and has since passed away — recalled how strange the concept was at first.

“I remember someone coming up with the term ‘mobile phone’. Everyone laughed,” he said. “Who’d carry a phone with them? It seemed so weird because we hadn’t seen a mobile phone yet.”

Soon came the Nokia Talkman, a portable phone that came with a case and a handle but if you were to put it in a backpack, it wouldn’t leave much room for anything else.

As the potential of the global mobile phone market became apparent, it had to deal with a surprise attack from Motorola which tried to sue Nokia over a patent dispute in the late 1980s. The aggressive approach of the American company surprised the more innocent Finns and served as a wake-up call.

“We realised the strength of the patent arsenal would determine the winner,” recalled the company’s first, and at the time only, lawyer. 

When Nokia moved to a modular design and streamlined its manufacturing it began producing devices that many of us had as our very first mobile.

Hand up if you had a Nokia as your first phone.
Hand up if you had a Nokia as your first phone.Source:Supplied

Pretty soon it was advertising all over the world with the slogan of “connecting people” — the same mantra adopted by tech elites these days, but for some reason it feels much more honest when it comes from a group of Finns called Jorma, Mika and Ove than it does from the likes of Mark Zuckerberg.

As it became the world leader in consumer mobile phones, at one point Nokia’s annual budget was larger than that of the government of Finland.

But it wouldn’t last long.

THE BIG MISTAKE

While in New York researching how people used maps, Akseli Anttila, Nokia head of design from 1995 to 2010, got a call. The person on the other end of the line told him to drop everything and come back to Finland.

“You need to study the operating system of this new phone,” the voice on the other end said. It was 2007, and that phone, of course, was the very first iPhone.

Years earlier Nokia executives had been shown a phone with the first ever touch screen capable of the swipe gestures that we have become so accustomed to. But they largely dismissed touchscreens as a gimmick that used too much battery.

As the film recounts this critical juncture and the people involved, it’s amazing to see how a company that ushered in such a radical product became blind to the next step in its evolution.

In producing the iPhone Apple made a couple of big trade-offs, giving up durability and battery life for a larger display and a sleek and intuitive operating system.

We now accepted those trade-offs as the new normal. We charge our device at the end of each day and we know they might break if we drop them too badly.

In response Nokia teamed up with Intel to create the MeeGo operating system for its phones but by then it was playing catch-up and it never really stood a chance.

The mobile market is so big that Apple has ridden it to become the world’s most valuable company. By comparison, Nokia’s former mobile phone division was essentially sold for scraps to Microsoft.

In 2016, Microsoft Mobile sold its Nokia-branded feature phone business to HMD Global, a new company founded by former Nokia executive Jean-Francois Baril which now produces phones under the brand.

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