Saturday, February 12, 2011

Nokia and I (A cautionary tale)

So today the long heralded rumour was confirmed and Nokia announced that over the next year or so it would be euthanising its ailing Symbian mobile platform. 
I've been following the ongoing saga of Nokia's slow fall from grace for some time, partially because I work for a company that develops mobile phone software (amongst other things) and partially because of my own experiences with Nokia over the years.

When I think back it seems like an impossibly long time ago that people marvelled at Nokia as kings of the user interface. I realised that looking through the history of my experiences with Nokia shows problems that started before the iPhone hit the market and are rooted in taking your consumers for granted.
Love At First Ring

My first Nokia was also my first ever mobile phone. I had just arrived at university and the phones in the halls of residence were painfully expensive as was the norm in the pre-ubiquitous mobile ownership days of the late 90's. 
I could barely afford the contract as it was, but when I saw the sleek and sexy lines of the 3210 I knew I had to have it. It stood out like a beacon amongst the lumpy grey boxes with external aerials that filled the shop. I never regretted the extra I had to pay for it. It served me for years running through several batteries and cases. The user interface was perfect; snappy and everything where you expected it to be. 
When it finally died I replaced it with a 3310 which was the same only better. I kept it until it died shunning such decadence as colour screens and polyphonic ringtones as the frivolous distractions they so clearly were.

The Finnish Rebellion

Some years down the line the company I worked for were bought by German engineering behemoth Siemens. As a result everyone had to hand in their corporate issue Nokia mobile phones and get a shiny new Siemens mobile phone. The backlash was huge. People flat out refused to to return their Nokias others went out and bought replacement Nokias with their own money. The clunky Teutonic user interface of the Siemens phones seemed stone age by comparison and besides every desk in the building featured the ubiquitous Nokia charger.

Smartphone Hell

Tempted by the prospect of a 2 (count 'em) megapixel camera I defected to a Sony Ericsson K750i for my personal phone. It had plenty of snazzy features, and it was a good phone, but it didn't have the battery life and snappy streamlined interface of my old 3310, or my corporate low end Nok. 

When I went with the good lady wife two replace her ailing phone I happened upon such a thing as a Nokia N73. This the man in the shop explained was a "smartphone". It could play video, retrieve my e-mails and even browse the internet and more than that it was made by Nokia the Finnish masters of user experience. I bought the phone and upgraded my subscription to take into account all the data I would soon be using.
The first thing I did when I got it home was try to listen to an MP3 except it didn't have a headphone jack. I had to buy an adapter which I promptly lost then gave up. The e-mail client flat out refused to pick up my GMail, It was too much bother to get video into a format it would play and the browser was a bad joke that I never managed to do anything useful with (I remind you I'm an engineer not an average punter).

As a professional geek I decided I would write some apps for it, but a quick look at the development environment told me it would be a nightmare.
To cap it all the phone would randomly crash, or switch its self off. I couldn't believe how one of my favourite tech companies Nokia could produce something so defective.
To give you an impression of how much I hated this phone, my wife banned the subject in our house so frequent were my tirades on its deficiencies. 
Maybe it was just a duff model. I asked around. A friend who shelled out for the even more expensive flagship N95 told me that when his contract expired he was planning to hit it with a hammer and then burn it in the garden. 

Running to Standstill 

When the iPhone was released in 2007 the world changed. I was surprised to discover that the iPhone 2G specs weren't a patch on my year old N73 (no 3G, worse camera, no flash, no SD card, no front facing camera), but the difference was that suddenly everything worked, e-mail and web browsing were a pleasure. 

A year down the line in 2008 and the press were full of tales of the forthcoming Nokia 5800 the new touchscreen device that would level the playing field. 
A perk of my current job is that I generally get to play with every high end phone on the market. When the 5800 arrived I decided to use it as my work phone. I lasted half an hour. The clunky resistive touch screen interface was so broken that I couldn't even make phone calls or write text messages effectively. 
Though each successive generation was heralded as the iPhone killer, four years after the release of the iPhone the current £430 N8 flagship is still years behind even the first gen Apple product in the UI stakes. 

How were these things even selling? I asked myself.

Backlash Begins
I started to understand what the answer might be when I went into town to look at the brand new Android phone the G1. I asked if I could try it and the guy in the shop said no. I asked how he expected to sell any. He said "Most people either know what they want from TV advertising, or else they buy what the sales assistant tells them to buy". When you couple this with the fact that most newspaper phone reviewers don't bother to test phones (they essentially republish bits of the press release and rate it according to the specs) and you can see how these pieces of junk get into the hands of a lot of people. 

The thing that seems to have passed Nokia by is that these phones are being sold to people not statistics. A two year contract is a very long time to be stuck with a device that you hate and by the end of that period you are going to be pretty pissed. When I traded my n73 for an Android phone I made a promise to myself that I wouldn't buy another Nokia mobile phone without very good reason and I don't doubt that there are millions of people who feel the same way. Perhaps this is what Strephen Elop means when he talks about Nokia loosing mindshare in the mobile market. 

When I have some time I'll give my thoughts on the Nokia / MS tie up, but now I need to go to bed.

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