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Remember when Nokia beat Google to Live Cases by six years?

Remember when Nokia beat Google to Live Cases by six years?

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I know that Nokia — Symbian Nokia, biggest-phone-maker-in-the-world Nokia — is dead and gone. It missed one too many turns in the road to the modern mobile platform, and for that, it paid the ultimate price. But that particular version of Nokia did many amazing things in its long run atop the proto-smartphone kingdom. (Just read my love letter to the N95 from last year.) And even today, I'm occasionally reminded of Old Nokia's outside-the-box ingenuity — ingenuity that often failed to strike gold, but nearly always felt ahead of its time.

Take today's announcement of Google's Live Cases, for instance. You pop a special case on the back of your newer-model Android phone — there's just a Skrillex case available right now, but presumably there'll be more — and the phone recognizes it, automatically customizing itself with special wallpaper and access to custom content. It's cool, it's clever.

But Nokia did it first.

Nokia rolled out the N79 in late 2008, a Symbian-powered 3G candybar (just writing those words feels like I'm stuck in a time warp). At that time, Nokia had built a healthy side business with its "Xpress-on" system — simple, replaceable front and backplates that gave rise to thousands of mall kiosks selling bootleg, unlicensed N*SYNC covers for Nokia 3110s. But the N79 was different: it had "active" Xpress-on covers, colored plates that could be identified by the phone once attached so that the UI theme could be automatically set to match. Attach a brown cover, get a brown theme; attach a red cover, get a red theme, and so on. If I recall correctly, the phone came with a couple of these covers in the box, and of course you could buy more. (I imagine Nokia was hoping you would.)

Sure, it wasn't as advanced as what Google is doing here — these Live Cases are contactless and can do much more customization on the phone than simply set the color — but we're talking about 2009. It was awesome, but it was a largely forgotten feature on a largely forgotten phone. Subsequent Nokia smartphones abandoned those smart covers, perhaps because people didn't understand them, or because they thought they were dumb, or because Nokia's smartphone business was in decline by that point. Regardless the reason, Skrillex proves that everything that's old is new again.

Time to dig out the N95 again and reminisce.