It used to be, when I worked there, that I sometimes thought about Nokia and its interesting relationship with the media.
I’ve always maintained that, at the core, the only reason behind the success of the behemoth was the sheer number of people willing to work there for a very low salary, out of misplaced Finnish patriotism. While everyone in a position of responsibility always seemed solely intent on making a name for themselves, not on building a commercially successful enterprise, the people behind them struggled to mitigate the damage and crack on with their passion for developing great phones and innovating in what was then the very exciting field of mobile communications. It was the people in the labs who decided to deploy 2-way SMS into terminals -a technology originally invented to allow operators to notify users, one way- kickstarting the only proven mobile-data business so far. Someone in the lab managed to squeeze a simple nibbler-clone game in a corner of the firmware -establishing the mobile gaming industry. Someone else decided he could code simple tunes using the 160 characters available on an SMS -giving birth to the mobile ringtone market. Yet again, another guy extended the idea to code graphics in the SMS text: picture messages were born. The list goes on: slider form factors (remember the banana? from the 90s?), mobile email, fax and Web browsing (the 9000), the mobile Internet…
Every time the guys in the labs have kept on going, innovating, creating, concocting. Giving the guys in management every opportunity to turn their inventions into veritable pots of gold and oodles of credibility and reputation. Yet every time the managers have invariably allowed it to slip, to give it away. Managed to throw it all away. SMS given away to the operators to monetize, games to Sony for their wonderful PSP, ringtones to a whole new industry spawned under their very noses, the slider form-factor to Samsung -unknown in the mobile market till the adoption of the slide as their product identity, and the User eXperience to Apple’s iPhone. The list, here, also goes on.
Yet for all the blunders, Nokia remained the darling of the press, always as happy to report on the latest innovation as it was to fail to report on the unavoidable failure to turn it into a market success that was to follow. Only on one case the press told it like it was -the gargantuan failure of N-gage couldn’t be brushed aside. But even then, it was the gaming press which blew the whistle. The loyal telecoms press stated put, silent, solemnly quiet, while general interest publications trumpeted the dead horse long after it was all but gone.
The reason behind this apparent oddity can be traced, again, to the people. I’m not sure the different heads of PR I knew in my team were any more clued up than other managers in other functions. The people that worked for them were a different matter altogether. Dedicated, capable, professional and just very good at their work; they knew to make the effort of building long-lasting personal relationships with journalists rather than wire releases to faceless companies. They could flatter their ears with kind words, pamper them with all-included week-long Summer trips to Finland and Lapland and always throw in a free lastet-generation mobile to keep on their way back. They understood the need for early access to product samples – a necessity for a company that tends to take at least a year to release a product to market after it’s announced. And they exploited the remoteness of Finland and the complicity of the local press masterfully, ensuring total control over the external image of the organization, hiding all the dirty linen under a white coat of snow and a peppering of idealized Santa Claus postcards.
The honeymoon, however, seems to have come to an end: today, an editorial asks where is Nokia going? and declares that the new impetus towards trying to become an integrated services provider is motivated by a superficial enthrallment with the new Californian Web uptopians, and will results, in the words of a market analyst, in marketing spending with no rise in sales or profit, and damage to devices’ market share. A few days ago, CNET declared the iPhone a better product than the N95, even after accounting for the Nokia’s superior features and call quality. Just a day later, The Register uncovers major problems with the Nokia E90 Communicator, problems that have forced the company to quit production until they get fixed. They’re but a handful of examples from a recent spate of negative publicity, driven by the birth of a new media darling in the space -the Apple iPhone- and the unexpected side effects of concerted globalization efforts by the formerly Finland-centric company. In its rush to become truly global, it has spread itself so thin that the efforts by the group of dedicated, underpaid and undervalued but mistakenly patriotic Finns formerly at its core are no longer able to balance the misguided actions of the company’s management, always willing to leave a mark today, to make it to the history books -or Wikipedia-, even if it’s at the expense of the company’s chances to remain relevant tomorrow.
The press, always kept clueless from distant Finland, can clearly now see through the veil. I suspect they are starting to realize what’s been going on, the stunt my former colleagues so skilfully played on them for so long and the real culture behind the pristine facade – a culture of two classes, the very capable bases losing the battle with those intent in appearing to be so. The wrath of the writing classes will turn towards its former master. Hard times lie ahead for the place I used to call my home and the many friends I left there when I decided that enough was enough. I wish them well. I only hope they’ll be brave, to look inside and do what needs to be done. We need an innovator in the mobile market, they have an opportunity to grow up and start running a business.