A brief history of Nokia: When the future was Finnish

nokia-history

For a few of years around 1996-1998, Nokia reigned briefly as the most electrifying technology company in the world. This was such an unlikely development that most Finns had great trouble understanding that Finland could be a global leader in the evolution of consumer electronics. For Finns, Nokia was a brand familiar from black rubber boots with an unusually clever heel design and the new triple-layered Nokia toilet paper that gave you that luxurious wiping experience. Nokia itself was a tiny, boring village. It had been a center for Russian fur trade 700 years earlier, when it was named after a small, furry animal with a black pelt. “Noki” means “soot” and “Nokia” means “The Black One.” Before Christianity’s arrival, Finns refused to use true names of important mammals, fearing the wrath of their godlike avatars. “Nokia” was one of the euphemisms used to avoid naming a religiously meaningful animal, possibly the mink.

We now understand that Nokia’s glory days were largely due to the fact that the global demand surge for mobile handsets was something leading consumer electronics firms like Apple, Siemens, Sony and Philips could not foresee. So Nokia ended up competing with two lumbering, erratic messes called Ericsson and Motorola.

Compared to those two main rivals, Nokia looked like a blazing ball of consumer friendliness. In the halcyon days before true competition from Apple and Samsung arrived, Nokia delivered what seemed like a dazzling series of innovative breakthroughs. Its global market share soared from 10 percent to above 30 percent in a matter of years as Nokia cracked tough markets like China and Brazil with astonishing ease.

Nokia’s Communicator arrived in 1996, 11 years before the iPhone. It combined email, fax, sophisticated calendar functionality and a massive display into a svelte package that weighed less than 400 grams.

The Communicator fit into a jacket pocket and it felt like a lump of future pulsating against your heart. I remember going to a Manhattan bar in my first visit to New York in 1997 and placing the thing on the counter. Literally everyone else in the bar had analog Motorola Startac phones that did not even offer SMS support. There was soon a crowd around me, exclaiming how America was years behind Nordic nations in mobile telephony. Like all Finns that year, I was drunk on an unearned sense of superiority — and three glasses of Absolut on the rocks I drank right after the taxi pulled in from the JFK.

In 1997, Nokia announced the 6110 and the 5110, two phones that towered over the competition between 1998 and 2000. These phones featured a quantum leap in talk time, a fluid menu system that placed a big emphasis on text messaging and an organic, slightly ovoid design. Snap-on covers offered a wild range of color options. Grandmothers and aunts were mesmerized by Snake, the mobile game that Nokia put into its new models. Text-messaging volumes exploded as these new phones offered five-line displays and exciting texting features like group-messaging.

Text-messaging, big displays, internal antennas, mobile email, designs aimed at women — Finns popularized it all. Because Japanese and Americans could not. Only Finns had the insight, wisdom and deep understanding. Nokia was The Dark One… a divine mammal striking down enemies of mighty nations. There is no comparison to the vanity and pride of people ruling Nokia’s new glass towers in early Noughties. The rock star executives from Nokia spun out of control like only internationally adored business stars in a country of five million people can. They made Steve Jobs look like Mahatma Gandhi.

And then, in 2007, things began falling apart with a delirious, loopy speed.

In the ancient Finnish epic, Kalevala, the poor northern people invent Sampo, an engine of eternal wealth. It grinds out gold, salt and wheat from three horns, day and night. But nothing that good can last, so Sampo is lost at the bottom of a lake and Finns return to their eternal gloom and poverty.  The story is true in its core — the Finnish psyche is built to cycle between megalomaniacal euphoria and darkest depression.

Nokia played out that psychodrama on a global stage.