Wednesday, May 13, 2015

The Rise and Fall of Nokia - My Tryst



Today I stumbled across these videos on youtube. They are about the meteoric rise and unexpected fall of mobile devices maker Nokia. I think the downward spiral of the Finnish company is now studied by marketting students in MBA courses, because here is an example of being the first in any industry or market simply does not guarantee everlasting success. In other words, becomming number one is easy. Retaining that position is the difficult part. Once this company was the leading telecommunication handset manufacturer in the world. It still is today, in a way, counting their number of feature phones or dumb phones as some pundits call it. But they lost the battle in the smartphone market, having theoretically  invented that market. Today the only devices where their brand name can be seen is on low end feature phones which do not run a complicated smartphone OS.

I have a personal tryst with this company. I have been (and still am) a Nokia fan. Because of their design. And because at one point I did get to work for Nokia. Well, not directly. I started my career in the IT industry in 2007 with a Accenture, the American IT outsourcing company. Accenture had a long-standing partnership with Nokia, and much of their Nokia projects where being run from the Indian city of Chennai. From 2007 to 2009 I was part of the team in India which designed and developed an all-under-one-umbrella CRM system for Nokia's numerous worldwide partners. It was my first project and the best learning platform I had. In 2008 I got the fairly early opportunity to travel to Nokia's headquarters in Finland to co-ordinate in the onsite-offshore teams. I travelled twice, and got to experience the notorious Finnish winter and the effect of the nordic sun (long days in summer). I travelled there a few months after Apple had launcher the first iphone. At that time, Nokia was world leader in terms of number of units sold, and they practically owned both the feature phone and smartphone markets. Apple's venture into the smartphone market with a single, expensively priced phone on an exclusive contract with a telecom network did not pose any challenge to Nokia. Instead, they took it as a joke.

Nokia immediately went into defensive and denial mode. In the company's internal networking forums, employees where actively discussing the unique features and coolness of the new iphone, and whether this posed any danger to Nokia. The company's technology leaders responded by announcing that the iphone was Apple's doom. In internal mails (which I no longer have a copy of) the company described in detail why the iphone could not replace Nokia. Apple had only a single model, priced ridiculously high on an exclusive contract, compared to the various hundreds of Nokia models. Apple wanted to sell the same phone to CEOs of companies and world leaders, and even to college students. Should CEOs have the same phones are students ? Nokia had various models customized for every type of user, and in every price range. The first iphone did not support multitasking, while Symbian coolly supported multitasking. Apple's desire to have the user's thumb for navigation on a small screen  was impractical, since a larger screen would mean a shorter battery life. While Nokia phones boasted of battery life of couple of days even for the high end models. And then there was the service network, Nokia had the world's best customer service network for their products. The project I was on at that point was developing new software to be used on this network globally. Apple had no such end customer support, nor global partner network.

The list goes on and on, every feature of the iphone was found by Nokia to have faults. The iphone, they predicted,  would only be used by the apple's user community, which was of course a minority. Anyone reading these internal mails would  be convinced that Nokia had many decades in them before they would lose their market share. My employer at that time was promised projects for many years and we were delighted to hear that ! During my second travel to Finland in 2009, Nokia had responded by releasing the ExpressMusic phone, which had a tilt-able touch-screen and full qwerty keyboard underneath running a newer version of symbian. It still did not have multi-touch, but scored high on all other points. Even as early as 2009, Nokia had prototype version of tablet computer and what they called mini-laptops lined up for launch. We came to know of this because we were asked to include these products in the CRM system we were developing.

I left the company in 2010, and moved onto other things, happy and confident that the CRM software we had developed would bring back the lost charm to Nokia. By 2011, the writing was clear on the wall. Worldwide sales of the company dropped, and Asian handset makers overtook Nokia in the smartphone market. The recession did not help either. Nokia had to layoff a majority of their employees, many people I had worked with during my project lost their jobs. I was really really hoping they would partner with Google and embrace Android as their new smartphone OS.  I even expected them to come up with a totally new Unix based OS. Meego was too late and did not count.  While Samsung and LG where shamelessly copying the iphone design for their devices, Nokia still decided to stay true to their European modular designs. They sold their symbian project to Accenture somewhere in 2009, and transferred many of that team. But Symbian was lightyears behind what iOS and Android could do. The developer community too waned, and programmers jumped onto the new OSs and started selling their apps on appmarkets. The only relief probably was that they where no the only phone company losing. RIM, the blackberry company folded first, and turned into a joke for the industry. At least Nokia could have learnt from other's mistakes. And when Stephen Elop decided to sell Nokia to his previous company Microsoft, that was the last nail on the coffin.

I guess without innovation, a technology company cannot survive for long. Nokia's failure to act on time and address competition was probably their biggest mistake. It is a lesson technology companies will brood over forever.

But for me, they still make the best hardware for phones. I have used their phones all my lift. Those handsets never woudl heat up during conversations, and were built to last. The N72 I had bought in 2007 served me faithfully for 8 years ! It had travelled with me to 7 countries and had weathered rain , sand and snow. I have used the sim cards of 5 work networks on it. The 3310 was my first cell phone. I was an expert on composing ring tone on that hone using the composer. I developerd the J2ME version of Sokoban for symbian during my college years to study the platform.My entire family use Nokia phones, even today.

So long, Nokia.

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