February 11th, 2011
08:30 AM ET

When Nokia ruled the world

It's hard to fathom how a company like Nokia has found itself in the position it now occupies.

It's not just that Nokia is the world's biggest handset maker (it is) or the world's biggest smartphone maker (it is). It's that Nokia used to get everything so right. How did they manage to get it so, so wrong?

My first mobile phone was a Nokia. In fact, going right back to the early days of mainstream mobile phone use, virtually everyone around me had a Nokia. There were a couple of Ericssons and a Motorola or two, but nothing compared to Nokia back then.

Why? Good design. Mobile phones have always had the ability to confound people; this was especially true back in the late 20th century when people weren't used to having portable computers in their pockets. Nokia's phones were clear and easy to use and shared a consistent design. If you figured out how to use one Nokia - and they were pretty easy to figure out - you knew how to use them all.

But Nokia never quite figured out how to scale up their simple design principles with the phone's ever-growing functionality. I remember playing with Nokia's first smartphone, the 7650, when I was just an intern at CNN.com. That was in 2002. Sadly, Nokia's current smartphone interface is built on that base, even though the phone has evolved dramatically since then. And it's become an unintuitive mess.

It's no coincidence that two of the hottest mobile operating systems are made by two companies with vast experience in building computer software: Apple and Google. Phones are essentially pocket-sized computers that can make calls. It's hard to see how Nokia can compete on the software front.

That leaves hardware. And Nokia has always been able to build good phones.

The Nokia 3210 at the top of this page was one of my first phones. Released in 1999, it was one of the first phones to have an internal antenna. It had a great keypad. It could take a beating. And it was cheap. In short, it was an extremely well-designed and well-built phone. (It also had the game Snake, but that's a story for another day.)

Fast forward to 2010, and Nokia's flagship phone is the N8: A phone with a 12 megapixel camera. In terms of sheer hardware, Nokia can go toe to toe with anyone. But what use is great hardware without good software to power it?

Sadly for Nokia, it's not 1999 anymore.

soundoff (3 Responses)
  1. Rafael Ventura-Rosa

    Great job this morning Kristie. The situation in Egypt is volatile and up to the minute reliable information is what is needed most. Keep up the good work.

    February 11, 2011 at 4:07 pm | Reply
  2. maxx

    no no no, the article is defocused. Nokia always produced failed phones, but people had no choice. So when apple came out with the perfect device it sold millions. Nokia always focused on the symbian OS which didnt have much to offer as the apple ios does and the android. So. Nokia was always wrong, but consumers didnt have much choice.

    February 14, 2011 at 7:47 am | Reply
  3. Xavier

    @maxx – Apple is far from perfect. Their phones have great software, as do Android phones, and offer the user a better flexibility of things to do on the phones.

    Nokia has always been superior as a phone (reception, call quality, antenna quality, etc), and has kept up to par in hardware. Their software was not great, and lagged behind. In +10 years ago this was good, because phones were only good for calling, and perhaps texting. The game has changed today, they didn't adapt well to the mobile handset/smartphone ecosystem.

    May 18, 2011 at 3:57 pm | Reply

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