Most people who hear the word “Nokia” associate it with mobile phones and telecom, but there’s actually a convoluted history behind the company. Nokia has explored multiple lines of business since its humble beginnings over 150 years ago and in that process has reinvented itself many times over.
Nokia is much older than most people know, but it was during the last few decades that the company became known for iconic mobile devices with bold design and technology. These ranged from a simple brick-like concept to unorthodox, sophisticated, and downright ridiculous form factors. The Finnish giant took part in shaping the history of telecommunications and mobile phones, which allowed it to grow into a global household name, but eventually became calcified by its own DNA and was forced to make a series of choices that almost brought it to its knees.
Nokia still exists today, with reported revenue that can be measured in the billions and over 70,000 employees globally as of 2023, but its priorities have shifted so much over the years that it’s mostly retreated from the consumer space. Some of its former engineering spirit lives on through a different Finnish company that set up its first office right across the street from the Nokia headquarters, while other engineering talent has migrated to companies like Apple and Qualcomm. Beyond that, Nokia licenses intellectual property to third parties, and today is mostly focused on developing and selling telecom equipment for 4G and 5G networks.
This article is an exploration of Nokia’s history, from its humble beginning to becoming a dominant force in mobile technology and owning its own factories, down to a subdued presence in the approval process for a lineup of Android phones that carries only a hint of its former glory, a product line that sells moderately well thanks in no small part to a powerful nostalgia factor.
Note: This feature was originally published on September, 2021. We have revised its content and bumped it as part of our #ThrowbackThursday initiative. Check out more nostalgia features like this in our Gone But Not Forgotten series.
Dialing Back Time to Nokia’s Humble Beginnings
Nokia was founded in 1865 by Finnish mining engineer Fredrik Idestam, and started out as a simple paper mill operation in Tampere, a city located in south-western Finland. It wasn’t long before Idestam expanded this operation to the nearby town of Nokia, which is located near the Nokianvirta River. Thus the “Nokia” name was born in 1871, inspired by this location.
In 1898, Eduard Polón founded Finnish Rubber Works (also known as Suomen Gummitehdas Oy), a company that manufactured everything from rubber shoes to car tires. In 1912, Arvid Wickström founded Finnish Cable Works (also known as Suomen Kaapelitehdas Oy), which became well known for producing electric cables, telephones, and telegraphs. In 1967, both were incorporated into the Nokia Corporation, a multifaceted business that offered paper and rubber products, electrical cables, generators, military communications and nuclear power plant equipment, computers, TVs, and many other things.
In 1979, Nokia started crystallizing into a telecom giant through a subsidiary called Mobira Oy – a joint venture with Finnish TV manufacturer Salora. Two years later, it launched the Nordic Mobile Telephone (NMT) service, a remarkable achievement in its own right as it offered full national coverage and was the world’s first automated cellular network system as well as the first to allow international roaming. This served as the basis to 1G, the set of standards for the first generation of wireless cellular technology, which used analog signals.
From Industrial Empire to Phone Maker
In 1982, Nokia introduced the first car phone – the exceptionally bulky, Mobira Senator, which was more like an advanced semi-portable radio station if you consider it weighed around 10 kg (22 pounds). Two years later, the company revealed its first “portable” phone, the Mobira Talkman 320F, weighing a more manageable 4.7 kg and sporting a big monochrome display, a phone book capable of storing 184 contacts, and a battery that allowed for 10 hours of standby and 60 minutes of talk time.
These were a great start, but still too impractical for most consumers.
In 1987, the company came up with the Mobira Cityman, the first true handheld mobile phone. All of its variants weighed a much more manageable 760 grams (1.7 pounds), and they worked great on the NMT network. Some may remember the Mobira Cityman 900, which was made famous by an image of Mikhail Gorbachev using one to call a Moscow official from Helsinki in 1987.
At the same time, a different side of Nokia’s business was developing that eventually formed a base for what it does today – network equipment. Notably, the company’s Televa joint venture was under pressure to deliver a powerful digital switch for NMT. And since it didn’t have the resources to produce its own custom silicon, it decided to design its switch around an Intel processor.
In 1982, this took the form of the DX200 digital switching platform, which would quickly become a runaway success despite being late to the market. This success would persist for a long time by virtue of its modular design, high reliability, and much cheaper price when compared to its rivals (more than 60 percent lower in some cases). To get an idea on how big this was, Nokia sold DX200 platforms globally right until telecom giants began phasing it out in 2013.
A year after the launch of NMT, the Confederation of European Posts and Telecommunications (CEPT) – a standards body comprised of state telecom firms in 1959 to coordinate standards, regulations, and operational guidelines across the region – formed the Groupe Special Mobile, which was later renamed Global System for Mobile Communications (GSM). Nokia had already put a lot of effort into pioneering research for Frequency Division Multiple Access (FDMA) and Time Division Multiple Access (TDMA) systems, so it quickly positioned itself at the heart of GSM development.
At the same time, Nokia was grasping at every opportunity to grow internationally. For instance, in 1983 Mobira forged an alliance with Tandy, then the largest consumer electronics retailer in the US, to sell handsets through the latter’s 7,000 RadioShack stores. This was a great opportunity to learn about low cost manufacturing in Asia, all thanks to hard negotiations that forced it to establish a manufacturing facility in South Korea.
Nokia also tried expanding into other consumer electronics segments through various acquisitions, but ultimately failed to integrate those businesses and settled for delivering network equipment and mobile phones.
In 1983, CEO Kari Kairamo convinced the Finnish Ministry for Employment and the Economy to set up Tekes – the Finnish Funding Agency for Technology and Innovation – to help the company’s R&D efforts using government funds, as Nokia had become a great force in the Finnish economy. This, coupled with having the Finnish Cable Works portfolio of businesses organized like a collection of startups, allowed Nokia to grow faster and pursue high-risk, high-reward research projects.
Three years later, Kairamo removed yet another obstacle for his vision – the shareholder control over the company. At the time, it was common for large Finnish companies to be mostly owned by local banks. In the case of Nokia, its two largest shareholders were the KOP Bank and the Union Bank of Finland. Kairamo proposed the creation of a new internal board comprised of senior executives and presided by the chief operating officer. This new board would take on many of the responsibilities of the supervisory board and sit just above the management board.
The shareholders agreed to the change in governance structure, but only because they wanted to avoid the public backlash that would follow a refusal of Kairamo’s proposal. Thus, their involvement and control of Nokia’s internal doings was reduced considerably, which was essentially a good thing – most of the members of the supervisory board had no experience in either the telecom industry nor international business. The timing was also good, as the US and the UK had just set the tone for the deregulation of the telecom market.
Nokia had a distinct advantage, as it owned all the pieces of the puzzle for end-to-end solutions – switches, base stations, and handsets. However, a group of managers analyzed the market opportunities brought by liberalization and digitization, and concluded the company was not organized properly to take advantage of them.
One of the managers was Sari Baldauf, who would go on to lead Nokia’s network and infrastructure business until 2005. She recommended the creation of Nokia Mobile Phones (NMP) – a separate business unit that would focus on mobile handsets, as she anticipated they would soon become more than simple network terminals. The remaining businesses – base stations and digital switches – would be merged into a second unit called Nokia Cellular Systems.
At this point, things looked very positive for Nokia’s future, but the company was riddled in debt from its previous decade of acquisition-led growth experiments. The flat company structure also meant that the corporate leadership didn’t have a clear picture of how the various business units performed, and as such would only get a peek view from looking at the overall financial results of the company as a whole. In 1988, Kairamo committed suicide and spawned an ugly political battle for leadership, as he hadn’t put an alternative succession plan in place. The matter was eventually solved by Nokia’s supervisory board, which sidestepped the fight and appointed COO Simo Vuorilehto as the new CEO.
Vuorilehto reduced Nokia’s workforce to 22,000 people over the next two years, effectively cutting it in half. After the collapse of the Soviet Union and the resulting recession that swept over Europe, the Vuorilehto-led Nokia felt pressured to attempt a sale to Ericsson, but the Swedish company didn’t want to assume the risk of purchasing Nokia’s data and consumer electronics divisions. Nokia’s supervisory board also tried hiring the Boston Consulting Group in a desperate search for options, only to find that its infrastructure business was the only one that had the potential to survive.
In 1991, Vuorilehto sold some poorly-performing business units, but he wasn’t ready to let the Nokia group be dismantled. Soon after, he pushed for the acquisition of UK-based phone manufacturer Technophone for £34 million (~$90 million adjusted for inflation in 2022). Technophone was the first company to come up with a phone that was small enough to fit in your pocket, and was the second larger seller of handsets in Europe after Nokia.
As a result of the acquisition, Nokia held enough global market share to become the world’s second largest phone manufacturer after Motorola.
A year later, Jorma Ollila took Vuorilehto’s place as CEO of Nokia, and the company hired Anssi Vanjoki as the new head of sales and marketing. Vanjoki saw that unlike Motorola, Nokia was selling its phones under various brand names like Mobira, Nokia, Technophone, and Radio Shack, so he sought to unify them under the “Nokia” brand and introduced the “Connecting People” marketing slogan. Ollila, on the other hand, was tasked with outlining a strategy to save a company where morale was low and uncertainty loomed over everyone’s heads.
Luckily for Nokia, Radiolinja – a Finnish consortium of local telecom operators – was granted a license to develop the world’s first GSM network, and Nokia was its first choice as a partner in that project.
In 1992, Nokia provided the infrastructure as well as the world’s first GSM handset, an invaluable experience that would serve the company well in the coming years. That year, Pekka Ala-Pietilä, who was head of Nokia Mobile Phones, predicted that adoption of mobile phones could reach “around 25 percent of the population in the most advanced economies by 2000,” which at the time seemed ridiculous to most in the industry.
As governments in Europe and around the world began selling GSM licenses, most of Nokia’s competitors weren’t able to provide the same kind of “turnkey,” end-to-end solutions. Even much larger firms like Ericsson and Motorola had a relatively poor understanding of the market in the early 90s, which is why they didn’t immediately pursue the consumer segment as hard as Nokia did.
At the time, Motorola had already established itself as the world’s biggest supplier of mobile phones, and had a particularly strong presence in the US, which was considered the largest single market of mobile phones. It also owned an extensive list of patents and employed many talented engineers, which is how it was able to achieve enough vertical integration to make phones almost entirely in-house. This was one of its main competitive advantage – Motorola could easily create lighter, more compact phones. A prime example of that was the $3,500 Microtac, a high-end phone that incorporated a novel flip-down mouthpiece, but that was still an analog phone in a world that was poised for a rapid transition to the digital.
Ericsson was one of the forces in the network equipment market, and unlike Motorola it acknowledged the potential of digital communications. However, the two firms had something in common – both saw handsets as dumb terminals and infrastructure equipment as the most important component of future developments in the telecom arena. This is why in 1989 Ericsson moved its phone business into a joint venture with General Electric in the US, only to buy it back five years later.
Around 1991, Nokia understood the importance of a more consolidated approach in achieving its dream to become a global product company with a consumer focus. To that end, Ala-Pietilä created strategies that incorporated a global logistics component, customer satisfaction, and concurrent engineering, a concept borrowed from Japanese companies. This meant that every new product Nokia envisioned was to be developed by engineers that worked more closely with logistics, manufacturing, and marketing teams. Furthermore, it allowed the company to bring partners into the research and development process, which later enabled the slew of phone form factor experiments to be produced with incredible efficiency.
Also pivotal to Nokia’s future success was Frank McGovern, who joined the company as part of the Technophone acquisition. At the time, McGovern was one of the few people at Nokia that had valuable experience working in a multinational firm with manufacturing expertise. Specifically, he had been leading Hitachi’s manufacturing operations in Europe, which meant that he possessed the critical skills needed to develop manufacturing as an essential function of Nokia’s business according to strong Japanese principles.
As a result, from 1991 to 1994 the Finnish company went from making 500,000 phones per year to around five million, and from reporting an operating loss to posting a healthy profit of FIM 3.6 billion ($1.4 billion, adjusted to inflation in 2022). And more importantly, 64 percent of that came from Nokia Telecommunications and Nokia Mobile Phones. On July 1994, the group was listed on the New York Stock Exchange, which allowed foreign investors to pour in additional capital to fund Nokia’s ambitious international growth plan.
It was also in 1994 that saw the Nokia board decide it was time to begin divesting the businesses that were not related to this new direction. The impact of this decision was immense, as two thirds of Nokia’s workforce would be replaced in the span of two years with many aspiring engineers from Finland’s technical universities. The work environment cultivated by the new CEO was very attractive despite the relatively low wages, as engineers would get regular job rotations that reduced internal political friction and allowed them to gain valuable technical skills.
Ollila knew that Nokia had little room for error with its international expansion, but his willingness to take a novel and unconventional approach would soon turn the company from a small telecom company grown from the ashes of a financially troubled industrial conglomerate into one of the biggest innovators in mobile phones and telecom infrastructure. He knew that in order to succeed, Nokia would have to leverage its strong R&D capabilities and move to capture new markets early on with a laser focus on adapting to local needs and building a strong trust in its services.
A notable early success of this strategy is when Nokia beat Ericsson to a contract to supply Thailand’s AIS with an end-to-end system, despite the latter having a larger presence in the country. The Finnish company was also able to score a similar contract with UK’s Cellnet in 1994 despite Motorola offering to do the same for a significantly lower price.
Nokia went on to build a strong relationship with suppliers throughout the US and Europe and built several factories in China and Mexico. That was a crucial component for the company’s continued growth, but it was only one of several that contributed. Nokia Mobile Phones chief Ala-Pietilä sought to make mobile phones more attractive for consumers, and to that end he worked with engineers to have all Nokia phones achieve high standards of quality and usability, while also giving them a distinctive look and feel compared to the competition.
An early result of that effort was the Nokia 1011 in 1992 (also known as the Mobira Cityman 2000), which was Nokia’s first mass-produced GSM phone. It had a brick shape with a short, extendable antenna on the top and was 45 mm thick, weighing 495 grams, which at the time was considered thin and light. It had a small monochrome LCD screen and was able to hold 99 contacts in memory, while its 900 mAh battery would only last for 90 minutes of talk time or around 15 hours of standby time. People who bought one at launch had to pay the equivalent of $3,000+ today.
Two years later, the successor to the Nokia 1011 arrived in the form of the Nokia 2110, with a smaller and slimmer “soap bar design” that weighed half of its predecessor and was only 28 mm thick. It had a scrolling text menu, and the screen displayed battery and signal levels, a notification symbol for unread SMS messages, and more.
Other notable features were the ability to display a list of 10 last dialed numbers, last 10 received calls, and the last 10 missed calls. The battery allowed between 70 to 150 minutes of talk time and 20 to 40 hours of standby. This was an expensive phone meant for business users, so most people bought the relatively inexpensive Nokia 232 instead, for the equivalent of $750 in today’s money.
By 1995, Nokia’s workforce had almost doubled and the group’s operating profit was up nearly 40 percent compared to the year prior. However, the company lost control of its supply chain that year as it quickly found it could no longer meet demand, which far exceeded the 300,000 phones a year that Ollila thought would be a realistic target back in 1992. Coupled with the fact that one of the company’s suppliers was experiencing yield issues after retooling one of its manufacturing plants, and Nokia quickly found itself in a position where it was unable to fulfill important high-volume orders. Production managers at Nokia didn’t have a real-time view of sales data, so they were simply pushing products in the largest possible volume to various markets without getting the crucial feedback they needed.
Frank McGovern selected Pertti Korhonen, who was running one of Nokia’s key manufacturing plants at the time, to find a vendor that could help solve the logistics crisis. That vendor turned out to be SAP, who designed and installed an ERP system that provided a clear view of Nokia’s entire logistics activity around the globe and allowed production managers to precisely track purchasing requirements, manufacturing, inventory management, and delivery.
This new system was fully operational in just six months, which gave NMP control back over its supply chain. To get an idea of the impact it had, inventory cycles were shortened from 154 to 68 days, inventory costs per unit were reduced by 50 percent, and the main Nokia phone manufacturing plant in Salo, Finland went from taking several months to add a production line to establishing one at full capacity in less than a week.
For years, this would prove to be one of Nokia’s main strategic advantages over competitors who were stuck in their old ways and encumbered by industry orthodoxies.
By the end of the 1990s, Nokia launched its first smartphone, the Nokia 9000 Communicator. This was the result of over 4 years of R&D that were focused on making a “pocket computer.” By the time it arrived in August 1996, it was far from a new concept, as Apple had already tested these new waters with the Newton, while IBM had created the Simon Personal Communicator. However, both failed in the market due to their high price and being ahead of their time.
The Nokia 9000 Communicator was a smartphone in an era when “smartphone” as a word only described a concept. The term itself had appeared in print as early as 1995 to describe AT&T’s PhoneWriter Communicator, but it was only a year later that Ericsson released a device it called a “smart-phone” – the GS 88 “Penelope”. This type of device that borrowed features that computers could do inside a portable brick, while also featuring a QWERTY keyboard was only starting to emerge, and it would take several years for them to become appealing for the average consumer.
Nokia’s first Communicator device was equipped with high-end internals, including an Intel CPU running at 24 MHz, 4MB of RAM, and 4 MB of ROM – 2 MB of which were accessible to the user. When unfolded, it would reveal a 4.5-inch monochrome screen with a resolution of 640 by 200 pixels and a miniature QWERTY keyboard, which you could use to send and receive email and fax via a GSM modem with a maximum theoretical speed of 9.6 kilobits per second – a far cry from the multiple megabits per second achievable today, and unimaginably slower than the theoretical maximum of 10 gigabits per second promised by 5G cellular network technology.
The Nokia 9000 also sported a rudimentary web browser. The biggest draw of this device, however, was that it ran a PEN/GEOS 3.0 operating system that closely emulated the experience of running Windows 95 on a desktop PC, with applications like Notes, Calendar, Calculator, Composer, Serial Terminal, Telnet, and a world time clock.
When you didn’t want to use this functionality, you could simply fold it back and use it as you would any other phone at the time. You could turn off the phone part and use the PC-like part of the Nokia 9000 Communicator and vice-versa, but the two were also connected so that you could always start an SMS on the phone side and continue composing it on the “PC” side.
The company improved on this original concept with a few subsequent models, the first of which arrived in 1998 in the form of the Nokia 9110 and 9110i. These utilized a faster AMD Elan SC450 CPU running at 33 MHz, weighed only half as much as the Nokia 9000, and dealt with many of the annoyances of the original, including the need for a special adapter for both charging and connecting to a computer. It even included an MMC slot for expandable storage.
One of the reasons why Nokia was pouring so many resources into rapid iteration on data-enabled phones was that its leadership at the time realized the future potential of a pocketable device that covered both business and consumer use. Then there was the perceived competitive threat from other companies like Apple and IBM, who had previously failed to find the right recipe but could always come up with a new and refined version.
Nokia executives also caught wind that Microsoft was seeking to forge partnerships with device manufacturers and mobile carriers to bring Windows to mobile devices. The Redmond giant had already succeeded in capturing a majority of the PC market using this strategy, but Nokia didn’t want to become a mere “hardware supplier” as it didn’t want to compete on low margins.
The Communicator series were a significant departure from Nokia’s core competencies of creating traditional phones with simple text interfaces that could easily be adapted for local markets. By comparison, Communicator devices were a more complex endeavor that required a much of the resources dedicated into developing and maintaining an operating system with a graphical interface, various applications, and supporting a variety of networking standards.
Despite growing popular in Europe, the first Communicator phones were a niche product in the US, as Nokia failed to convince carriers to switch over to the GSM standard. On the software side, the company quickly realized after the experience of the Nokia 9000 and 9110 that it had to switch from the resource-hungry GEOS to a more efficient mobile operating system. That OS was EPOC, a 32-bit operating system developed by a company based in UK called Psion, and an ambitious project that would form the basis for something much bigger in the coming years.
Nokia wasn’t the only company that saw the threat of Microsoft engulfing the phone space with a mobile Windows variant. Ericsson and Motorola were similarly concerned of the potential impact on their businesses, so together with Nokia they created a joint venture called Symbian to develop an open mobile operating system that would provide equal opportunity for every player in the phone space.
The idea behind the Symbian operating system was simple – to create a microkernel and its associated libraries and a separate user interface that would be easy to modify to suit competing visions for what a smartphone can do and how that functionality should look like. Companies would pay the same licensing fee to use Symbian OS, ensuring no single entity had complete control over the operating system, and they would be allowed to develop proprietary interfaces on top of it. Developers would have an easy way to tap into the potential of the Symbian platform with greater ease without having to spend too many resources to support phones from different manufacturers – at least in theory.
It didn’t take long before the first Symbian-powered phone landed on the market. In 2001, Nokia launched the third generation Communicator phone (also known as the Communicator 9210), running Symbian version 6, building on the foundations of EPOC version 5. This was a short-lived OS platform dubbed “Crystal” that Nokia would improve upon and brand as Symbian “Series 80” later on. The Communicator 9210 hardware was the normal evolution of the 9000 series, with a color internal screen with a resolution of 640 by 200 pixels. When folded, it looked like a normal brick phone with a tiny monochrome screen (80 by 48 pixels) and a fold-out antenna.
This was a pretty powerful device at the time, with a 32-bit Arm9-based CPU running at 52 MHz and 16 MB of memory and IrDa interface. It was also Nokia’s first phone with expandable MMC memory, the precursor technology for today’s SD cards. Nokia improved on the design Nokia 9210 with subsequent models, starting with the 9210i in 2002 which featured 40 MB of internal storage, support for video streaming, and a more reliable, LED-backlit LCD panel. In 2005, Nokia introduced the Nokia 9500 with a more mature Symbian Series 80 UI, Wi-Fi connectivity, and a camera – all in a smaller and lighter chassis “only” 24 mm thick and weighing 222 grams. This model was followed by the Nokia 9300 which offered a similar set of features in an even smaller and lighter design weighing 167 grams.
… on the mainstream side, Nokia released some of the most iconic feature phone designs in history between 1998 and 2000.
Meanwhile, on the mainstream side, Nokia released some of the most iconic feature phone designs in history between 1998 and 2000. The Nokia 5110 was the first phone to offer replaceable faceplates and also among the first to bundle the game Snake.
This phone was succeeded by the Nokia 3210. The more compact phone had great battery life, it came in several bright colors and could be easily customized with a myriad of phone covers and classic ringtones, it was able to survive several drops to the pavement, and we can only imagine how many human lifetimes were wasted playing Snake on it. It was an affordable phone designed by a team led by Frank Nuovo, and it didn’t launch with the typical hype and fanfare we see today, but still managed to sell more than 160 million units worldwide.
The Nokia 3310 that followed it sold an additional 126 million using the same recipe of simplicity and durability, with a friendly design that was meant to appeal more to a general consumer audience as opposed to the bland business-oriented phones of the 90s. And while the Nokia 3210 and 3310 weren’t given too much media attention at the time, they played an important role in the mobile revolution and reveal some important lessons about what made Nokia so successful in the early 2000s.
A few of years before that, in 1996, the Nokia 8110 was notable for using a slider form factor and because of the design’s curvature, it was later nicknamed the “banana phone.” The phone was lightweight and mostly oriented towards business, and thus not very well known until an altered version of the handset made an appearance in blockbuster movie “The Matrix.” The phone shown in the movie had a spring-loaded cover that was not part of the actual design, but this functionality was present in the Nokia 7110 released in 1999.
Another notable phone released that year was the ultra compact Nokia 8210, when the miniaturization of a phone’s footprint was a key selling feature itself. Also featured in several movies, the 8210 could store up to 250 names and came with an infrared port for communicating with a compatible PC or a printer. The Nokia 8210 was a popular feature phone for many years to come among users who desired a small phone with a long battery life and the absence of modern wireless connectivity that could be more easily tracked.
Frank Nuovo joined Nokia in 1993 and began working full time as head of the company’s global design team in 1995. In the subsequent years he established a dedicated design center in Los Angeles, California, followed by two more in England and Finland. These were supplanted by several remote teams in Japan, China, Germany, and Denmark. In doing this, Nuovo was able to coordinate his teams to experiment with bold design concepts around the shape and form of Nokia phones, a design direction dubbed “Vision ’99”. He also applied Nokia’s strategy of catering to various needs and tastes, and led to the crystallization of phones with characteristics that appealed to market segments such as “youth,” “sport,” “premium,” “luxury,” and “business,” all of which had never been used before by phone makers.
In other words, Nuovo saw an opportunity in using the time between mobile chipset life cycles to get creative about the overall presentation and feel of Nokia phones. The company’s design team made an important change with the Nokia 3210, by tucking the antenna inside the phone alongside the battery pack, which had to be modified to create the additional space.
At first, this was a source of tension between designers and engineers at Nokia, and it made the phone wider and bulkier at a time when the industry was pushing in the opposite direction with every new design. However, there were implications of this design choice that were positive – the wider chassis meant the phone could have a wider screen, the shorter body meant it was more pocketable than other phones, and the removable keyboard and back covers led to the blossoming of a new market for Nokia phone accessories.
The Nokia 3210 also established the idea that phones could double as entertainment devices to pass the time, thanks in no small part to a simple and addictive game called Snake. If you didn’t like the included ringtones on the phone, you could compose new ones instead. This, coupled with the infinitely customizable phone covers made the Nokia 3210 stand out and earn a lot of consumer mindshare.
It also helped greatly that Nokia was busy staying on top of tech innovations around the GSM standard. In Europe, people were more reliant on pay-as-you-go mobile plans, which led to a habit of saving money using text messages when a phone call could be avoided. Nokia designed the 3210 and 3310 with this in mind, so it made the numeric keypad keys larger, added T9 predictive text technology to make texting faster and easier, and pre-installed “picture messages” that today would look like fossils of the emoji world.
These two phones helped Nokia take the crown from Motorola as the world’s biggest phone manufacturer by volume, and the company held onto that position until Samsung had its moment in 2012. In 2017, HMD Global – a mere shadow of Nokia’s former mobile business unit – paid homage to the Nokia 3310 by launching a rebooted version that kept the same DNA and sported more modern internals. This included a color screen with a resolution of 240 by 320 pixels, 16 MB of internal storage expandable via a microSD slot, a 2-megapixel camera, and a simple interface whose most complex component is an Opera mini browser – all for $60. It generated a lot of buzz, but it also came at a time when any feelings of nostalgia this would evoke were mixed with a sour taste of disappointment in what had become of Nokia’s mobile business.
From Nokia the Underdog to Nokia the Giant
Nokia Mobile Phones knew it had all the right ingredients within its organization to carve itself a path to dominance in the phone industry, and was eager to execute on its vision of what a smartphone should be like, since NMP executives were convinced this would be the next big thing in tech. The period between 2000 and 2010 gave way to numerous Nokia phones, where designers and engineers worked together to enable various forms and feature sets that would cater to almost any taste, sometimes going well into the unconventional.
At the same time, NMP was looking into how it could leverage alliances with other organizations to infuse new devices with useful services. The company had joined the Wireless Access Protocol (WAP) Forum, and was pursuing partnerships with telecom companies, banks, and Internet companies like AOL and Amazon. Before long, however, NMP executives realized these efforts were not a sound strategy as many of these alliances were open platforms where competitors would also be able to draw value.
Nokia’s strength was its ability to iterate fast on its phone designs and catering to a diverse customer base. This would also prove to be its weakness later on, but in the early 2000s Nokia established a strong foothold on the phone market by making phones “cool” and easy to use.
The company also established a “Digital Convergence Unit” led by Anssi Vanjoki, who was enthusiastic about the many opportunities afforded by color displays, more efficient mobile chipsets, and the Symbian platform.
During the early 2000s, Vanjoki led a project codenamed “Calypso,” where no less than 500 Nokia engineers focused on integrating a digital camera into a phone, something that was frowned upon by executives from Nokia’s core phone business, who considered it a waste of resources.
During the early 2000s, Vanjoki led a project codenamed “Calypso,” where no less than 500 Nokia engineers focused on integrating a digital camera into a phone, something that was frowned upon by executives from Nokia’s core phone business, who considered it a waste of resources. They would soon be proven wrong with the arrival of the Nokia 7650, which offered a built-in VGA camera at a time when rivals only offered this feature as an add-on that was cumbersome to use.
The Nokia 7650 was the company’s most important launch in 2001, and the first to utilize the Symbian S60 platform with its easily recognizable icon-based menu. The screen was 2.1 inches in diagonal and had a resolution of 176 by 208 pixels – not enough to display the 640 by 480 stills the 7650 was able to capture in full glory. However, a bigger defect was the limited 4 MB of internal storage that was not expandable in any form.
Elsewhere, the Nokia 7650 was equipped with a powerful Arm9-based CPU running at 104 MHz, and was able to run both Java and EPOC applications, something that made it appealing to many despite the steep price of €600 (€822/$970 adjusted for inflation). It had Bluetooth connectivity, and a sliding keypad design that allowed it to be compact enough to easily fit in your pocket. It was also able to take advantage of Multimedia Messaging (MMS), meaning you could send pictures to someone else with the same ease of sending an SMS text message.
Nokia promoted this new and exciting phone around the theatrical release of the movie “Minority Report,” which increased its visibility and contributed to strong sales. But more importantly, the 7650 set the standard for how a camera phone should be designed, and paved the way for several bold designs that would propel the company to new financial heights.
This wasn’t the first true camera phone – that title goes to Sharp’s J-SH04 which launched in 2000. However, the resolution was poor and this phone was only available in Japan, effectively limiting its visibility when compared to Nokia’s 7650, which quickly became the most popular phone in Europe months after its release, despite fierce competition from Palm OS and Windows CE devices.
The success of the Nokia 7650 paved the way for the Nokia 3650’s arrival in 2002. This new phone had nearly identical specifications but sported a storage expansion slot and traded the sliding keypad design for an unusual, circular keypad.