Archive for September, 2013

requiem for an empire

4 September 2013


I understand something happened in Finland today. Two years ago I might have learned about it in a very unpleasant 6 am phone call. Today I learned about it when the US woke up and my father and brother sent me links – work is busy and I was taking a social media holiday. I still haven’t looked at anything much except the statement, the Bloomberg story, @teroterotero’s columns and Facebook.

I lived in Helsinki from 1994 until a year ago. Starting about 2000, friends back in the States stopped asking me if I knew Linus Torvalds personally and started asking me about Nokia: What was their secret? What was the Finnish magic? I would reply that there was no magic. [1] They were a decently run company that had a good chance of hiring anyone they wanted in Finland because they were the only big tech company and the only truly global company there. They made some lucky decisions. But they were ruling the mobile phone market mainly because their competitors were worse – as one does. If you don’t remember all the brands of ugly, bulbous black phones with no features that used to be sold for hundreds of euros, dig up a Helsingin Sanomat from, oh, 2001. Yes, they were pushed in Finland too, for years after Nokia started to walk on water. And they were primitive. My first US mobile phone couldn’t even text [2]. It didn’t matter because people there didn’t yet understand why you’d ever want to text instead of call. Wasn’t that what pagers did?

I had four Nokia phones:

1. The 8110i Matrix phone (1998-2003). At that time the main competition was Ericsson phones that looked like digital voltmeters. The 8110i looked like … a sexy digital voltmeter, with sculptured curves and a satisfying click-shut. It held 10 texts – I would copy them into a notebook before deleting and I never deleted the first few, so effectively seven texts – and could be used as a modem, just barely. The user interface was absolutely transparent.

2. The 6610 (2003-2008). This was one of the little business phones with a rather flimsy case which cracked the first time I dropped it on a bathroom floor; it was bound together with tape for most of its life. The selling point for me was an FM radio. It had simple icons on the color display and could be used, just barely, to browse Internet sites that had preformatted their information into droplets (this was called WAP). The user interface was mostly easy to figure out.

3. The E61i, E63, and E71 (2008-2012). I loved the Nokiaberries dearly and it seemed like true science fiction to have a little computer terminal you could slip in your pocket. These had great keyboards for pounding out text messages and text notes in QuickOffice. They could surf the Web in the manner of a magnifying glass surfing an encyclopedia, and even learned to do e-mail. They were my first cameraphones. The user interface was challenging, but anyone who grew up hacking mainframes and knew Finnish could catch on eventually. I had to keep buying them because they kept getting stolen when I traveled, but I got them secondhand off and a better model each time so it wasn’t as painful as it could have been. (Still if you are the person in Riga who took my E61i, I would like my Montreal photos of Safdie’s Habitat back, and if you are the person in Arlington who got my E63, I would like my notes for a crime novel back. You’ll find my e-mail in the superordinate page here. Thank you.)

4. The Lumia 800 (2012 and still is my Finnish phone). While the phrase “Microsoft Windows Phone” did not inspire confidence, I have always had a thing for organized, democratic arrays of squares. Perhaps my mother was frightened by a periodic table while she was carrying me. The user interface was for the most part intuitive, and sometimes terrifyingly so. As in, it occasionally anticipated my thoughts or rearranged my information into new and delighful arrays. It took splendid photos and movies. The battery life and Zune backup were underwhelming. I demoted it because upgrading in order to get WiFi tethering and other features would require wiping the memory – hello, 2012 and still no way to back up a phone completely including preferences, apps, contacts and texts? I don’t want to get out that SMS notebook again. (Update: Battery died again and I can’t recharge it at all. It is 18 months old.)

My main UK phone is an Android (Sony Ericsson, but used only for voice, texting and WiFi tethering of the iPad I use for everything else. I wonder if my old Matrix phone still works and could be hacked to tether the iPad.

I wish everyone involved in the latest mashup arrangement and transfer of sovereignty well. Good job faking people out.

[1] Really hate to disillusion people and tarnish the national brand but there is also no magic in the Finnish schools. They are well funded and well staffed and have relatively well looked-after raw material to work with, thanks to the welfare state. Also, no magic in the Finnish economy, just high taxes, conservative planning, somewhat fairer distribution, and a social tradition that tends to think “because I can” is not a good excuse for exploiting other workers.

[2] Or possibly it could text, but only to phones on the same carrier, or only to phones of the same make on the same carrier, or some such mishegas. Anyway, for practical purposes it couldn’t text.