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Nokia saw the future, but couldn't build it

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Everything that Apple and Google are today, Nokia wanted to become

Photo by Vlad Savov / The Verge

There was once a time when my search for a new phone would start (and likely finish) with a visit to Nokia.com. The Finnish company had the widest choice, the best designs, and the most respected brand around the world, so it was pretty hard to pick a bad phone from its catalog. Try doing the same thing today, however, and you’ll find every link on the Nokia homepage pointing to Microsoft’s Mobile Devices division — the new incarnation of the Nokia most of us knew and loved. It’s a vastly different mobile world we’re living in now, but what’s most striking about it is that Nokia saw it all coming.

The best phone in the world today is dressed from head to toe in aluminum and has an outstanding camera that protrudes from its body. So did the Nokia N8 in 2010. The iPhone that’s collecting all the plaudits and sales now is basically the fulfilment of a vision Nokia had half a decade ago: combine the best camera with the best build materials and let others try to match you. The only thing Nokia didn’t do right with that phone was its software. The N8 design was ready to go in early 2010, when it would have been among the first with 720p video recording, but repeated delays of the new Symbian version pushed its release to September. The hardware was getting kneecapped by the software, which a Nokia employee told me at the time was being developed in separate silos that wouldn’t be integrated into a single operating system until the final weeks before launch.

"It's big!" He says with a smile. "But it's also beautiful and very thin this time."

No, those aren’t the words of Apple’s Phil Schiller describing the iPhone 6 Plus; they are the proclamations of Anssi Vanjoki while presenting the Nokia E7 at Nokia World 2010. The E7’s 4-inch screen was considered large for its time, but Nokia knew where our preferences were heading. Watch the rest of its presentation from that September 2010 gathering and you’ll also hear of personalized location-based services not unlike Google Now. "And it is a space that we intend to own," said Executive VP Niklas Savander at the time. As wildly optimistic as that may sound in hindsight, it was a justifiable ambition for a company that was the leader in mobile mapping and navigation services, even if its software left something to be desired.

Nokia’s biggest failure was an unwillingness to embrace drastic change

Nokia’s biggest failure was an unwillingness to embrace drastic change. The company sowed the seeds for its self-destruction when it made "the familiarity of the new" the tagline for its big Symbian upgrade those many years ago. It feared alienating current users by changing too much, so it ended up with a compromised mess of an operating system that wasn’t fit for the future. Even as it was making one mistake, however, Nokia was keenly aware of the threat of another.

Jumping to Android was widely advocated as a quick shortcut to making Nokia’s software competitive, but Anssi Vanjoki dismissed that idea as a short-term solution that was no better than "peeing in your pants for warmth in the winter." I was among those who thought him wrong, but the recent financial struggles of HTC, Motorola, and Sony have shown him to be more prophetic than paranoid. Nobody outside of Google, Samsung, and Microsoft (by virtue of patent royalty payments) is making real money off the sales of Android phones.

lumia 800

The Nokia N9 was a revelation, but MeeGo was never given a second chance

Eventually, Nokia’s hand was forced into making a switch and it chose Microsoft’s Windows Phone as the platform to build its future on. That construction project is still going on, though it no longer carries the Nokia name. Before Windows Phone, we got a glimpse of what might have been with the introduction of the Nokia N9. It ran the open-source MeeGo OS that Nokia was developing as a successor to Symbian, and it infused a breath of fresh air into both hardware and software design for phones.

The N9’s unibody was so desirable to look at and delightful to the touch that it spawned a family of Windows Phone progeny that continues today with the Lumia 730. The multitasking overview and switcher of the N9 has also been widely emulated in devices of all creeds and operating systems, and so has its double-tap-to-wake functionality. That phone was, and remains, a revelation. Still, MeeGo development wasn’t proceeding as quickly as new Nokia boss Stephen Elop had wished, and there was no app ecosystem to speak of, so the N9 and its kind were banished in favor of the more pragmatic Microsoft-led approach.

Nokia's 2007 vision of the future was remarkably similar to Apple's.

The list of things Nokia saw coming but failed to adapt to is regrettably long. Another instance where Anssi Vanjoki seemed to exaggerate was when he predicted that DSLRs would be replaced by cameraphones. I mocked his outlandish claim then, but to look at the new iPhones, the Panasonic CM1, and Nokia’s own Lumia 1020, there are now certainly enough excellent options to make at least a few people drop the bulky dedicated camera. Nokia is, of course, not unique in its anticipation of future trends, but it has been better at it than its epic fall from dominance would suggest. Like Palm with webOS, Intel with Mobile Internet Devices, and even Xerox with the graphical user interface, Nokia has repeatedly demonstrated that being first to a good idea is no guarantee of commercial success.

Being first is no guarantee of success

Before the iPhone had apps and Android got Maps, Nokia phones had both. Today there isn’t a flagship smartphone without either a metal or faux metal finish. If only Nokia’s software were as good as its foresight and hardware, my visits to its homepage would still be producing the same frisson of excitement that they once did. Instead, I’m left staring vacantly at the four squares of the Nokia apocalypse that join up to form the Microsoft logo.