If only Nokia had a Steve Jobs

Six years ago this month, January 2007, Steve Jobs stood before the world and announced the iPhone. His words were few and telling:

“Every once in a while a revolutionary product comes along that changes everything”


Accuse Steve Jobs of showmanship if you like, but in this case he was absolutely correct about iPhone’s revolutionary impact. Thanks to the iPhone, Apple is now the world’s richest tech company, has a global user base of over 500 million – and is growing rapidly. During this same period, Nokia has lit itself aflame, been forced to leap from its own burning platform, and finds itself, still, drowning in the icy waters below.

It should not be so.

The Apple iPhone went for sale in June 2007, in the US, on AT&T, with 2G connectivity. There was no app store. The device was priced over $500. It looked unlike anything before it. No wonder Nokia – and everyone else – assumed iPhone would flop.

As Apple launched iPhone, Nokia gave us the N95, a device many experts considered possibly the best smartphone ever for its time. The N95 included a great mapping service, had a awesome 5MP camera – as opposed to iPhone’s 2MP version – included camcorder functions, excellent sound quality for music, possibly the best web browsing for the time, and a myriad of great games.

The problem, however, was Nokia had no Steve Jobs. No, not to help market the device. Rather, to re-imagine the future. The N95, great as it was, was more of the same. Only, the world did not want that, even if the world had not yet realized what they desired.

Nokia N95 first iPhone

The N95 was a hunk of metal and plastic and glass that was not comfortable to hold. It had far too many buttons, all crammed next to one another. The screen was too small compared to the total size of the device. Many of the N95’s design and hardware failings were there because Nokia had no choice. Its software, Symbian, was simply not that good – not in meeting the needs of the future. What the future wanted, what we now have thanks to iPhone, is a full touchscreen device, highly responsive, with an OS that is both intuitive and powerful, so much so that the device only requires a singular ‘home’ button. In 2007, the N95 looked like a high-end mobile personal computing device. The iPhone looked like nothing else. Critics, and Nokia, got it all wrong. They foolishly compared the iPhone against the N95. The N95 was the best of all that came before – a fast, voracious, powerful…dinosaur. The iPhone, the realization of Jobs’ vision, was the start of a new species and a new era.

Steve Jobs always knew that great hardware needs great software – working together. Only then can you have the device you envisioned. Only then can you have a device as utterly beautiful as it could possibly be. Adding more and more buttons, more and more processors, more and more pieces of hardware onto an aging, brittle operating system could not mask the truth: it’s power was limited.  Hardware will improve, functions can be added. Jobs knew that all that only complicated and ultimately limited the device. A full touchscreen, responsive to a finger swipe, with an obvious and intuitive interface, almost no buttons, no hardware, was the way to the future.

Now we are not surprised: the N95 became part of history. The iPhone continues to dominate the smartphone landscape, driving in more profits and more users than any competing smartphone, by far.

Steve Jobs understood that a beautiful, functional device is not simply the sum of its specs. Nor is it a list of functions – camera, music player, GPS. Nor is it a top-of-the-line product built for “power users”. Rather, it is a nearly invisible “platform” that can support everyone’s needs: students and teachers, toddlers and seniors, gamers and middle managers, CEOs and philosophers.

Unlike Nokia, Jobs did not create a variety of devices for a varying set of demographic types, each priced across the spectrum from cheap to expensive. Rather, he created a singularly beautiful product that was powerful enough for everyone, yet simple enough for everyone. The man accused of operating a “marketing company” tailored to elitists in fact built a device for everyone.

And, yes, he also knew how to sell. This is to our benefit. Consider: Nokia had its “E” line and “N” line and others, and there was the “90” and the “7” and the “9000” and many many more, all meaning nothing to anyone – except confusion. Jobs, again understanding the power of simplicity and universality, named his product iPhone. No iPhone Basic, no iPhone Power, no iPhone N9000. Simply, iPhone.

Understand, however, that this was not simply a branding decision by a savvy marketing man. It flowed from the reality of the device – a pane of glass, light as could be, highly functional, extremely intuitive, made for everyone. That takes incredible vision and design sense – and control.

Nokia couldn’t do this if they wanted, however. Nokia had no Steve Jobs. They were building atop the past, not building for the future. When Jobs launched the iPhone, with its full touchscreen, no physical keyboard, the phone itself merely an ‘app’, this was not just revolutionary but heretical. But the genius of the full touchscreen – provided you could build the hardware and the software to realize this genius –became apparent to everyone. It could do damn near everything. The iPhone opened up the future.

Is it any wonder that Google quickly transformed Android from a copy of Blackberry into a copy of iPhone?

Jobs did not simply remove buttons, he removed complexity. Is it any wonder that now there are a billion plus smartphones in use. We use them to monitor our blood pressure, check in at our favorite restaurants, watch our favorite movies, learn a new language. It’s easy to call Jobs a visionary. The realization of his vision, however, took power and faith and sometimes a personal dickishness and a shocking focus. Jobs was able to do what Nokia, then the global leader, was afraid to do.  Jobs did not add to the past, he removed it, and Zen-like, expanded our world.

Last week, Nokia announced that they would no longer make any new Symbian devices. As if it mattered any longer. Symbian accounted for only 2.6% of smartphone handset shipments last quarter. Apple on the other hand made more profit than Microsoft and Google and Amazon combined. By contrast, Nokia, surviving on Microsoft marketing money these past couple of years, announced a meager profit of $270 million.

The smartphone wars are not over, despite the dominance of Apple and Samsung. The market for these devices continues to grow by 36%, according to IDC. Most users keep their devices less than two years before replacing them with a new model. There is time for Nokia – and others – to catch up. But it’s not likely. Jobs’ vision not only changed Apple’s fortunes but changed the entire PC and mobile phone industries. Apple is worth about 30 Nokias. All thanks to a man with a vision and the balls to see that vision come true.

[Ed.] For more about Nokia downfall check out “How Nokia was disrupted

Author: Brian S Hall

Brian S Hall writes about technology, immortality and food for ReadWrite, Techpinions, Unwired View and other publications. His thoughts on the 'smartphone wars' and how these are rapidly de-constructing markets, industries, business models and relationships around the world can be found on his personal site at www.brianshall.com.

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