Sunday, January 22, 2017

Connecting People



In mid 1800s a German trained mining engineer decided to build a paper pulp mill in a far flung town in the western part of the Russian Empire. He would, in another few years, will build another mill and later would venture into other form of forest based and power generation business. This business will be relocated to the nearby town, after which he would name his company. More than a hundred and twenty years later, the company this Finnish engineer started, would build the most popular brand of the tool that will redefine the word connectivity in late twentieth century and will pave the path for the most breakneck competition in consumer electronics that we've ever seen.

Yes, it's mobile phone and the company, NOKIA.
Nokia 6110
I remember seeing a device that my uncle bought that weighed about 500 grams and he used to keep in his bag for carrying. It had a tiny antenna on top of it, which for quite some time to come will be the identity of a mobile phone. A simple multi-press keypad and six other buttons accompanied by a small inch-wide dot-matrix screen promised the unimaginable possibility of talking to someone on the other end of the country while you're walking in the busy streets of city.

But still these things remained quite a matter restricted to the riches. You had to pay for receiving calls and pay more than ₹10 a minute to make one.

Things changed soon enough. These tiny things were popping up more and more from pockets, and the ones relied upon most used to bear the same name in 5 capital letters on them.

Nokia didn't just sell mobile phones. They also sold a culture, cultivating a fan-base. One that will, a decade later spin off an entirely own market. Probably all first generation mobile users' first taste of handheld gaming was with Snake Xenzia. So much so, I recently saw a person playing a clone of the game on his phone, an iPhone.

When someone starts talking about Nokia, it's unfinished deal if the legend of 1100 and 3310 doesn't come up. Those were probably the sturdiest of consumer electronics ever sold on the face of earth. Countless stories of these falling from 2nd floor or drowning in a bucket of water, and eventually emerging out of them unscratched and functioning as good as new still sets the tone of conversation when people talk about build quality. Those were benchmarks; traditional benchmarks.

The first cellphone came to my family in 2006, a Nokia 1600. A device that would save my day after more than 9 years of first unboxing it. Time passed as fast as our demands outgrew itself. We soon upgraded our 1600 to a 5200, yes the famed XpressMusic version. That thing gave a quite good service for a while and started deteriorating. And we were not as much of a Nokia loyalist anymore as we were previously.

Situations changed, Nokia started faltering in it's tracks less than a decade later. Technological advancements were a little too much into focus and though quality remained top notch, the next billion, who were now the emerging market, were naturally common people who'd need their work done more than features they'll never use. They would gladly make compromise with build quality in favor of new features, and trade new features as easily for cheaper cost. It was a tricky market, an uncharted territory dominated by fierce competition to woo customers, who were not much sensitive to anything except cost. And with expensive devices with clunky UI, Nokia was at obvious disadvantage.

Things were looking bad already enough, the fatal blow was made when they decided to jump into the smartphone bandwagon, but with the wrong tools, Windows Mobile. Loads of conspiracy theories are still spun today, but overall it was a policy failure. Soon the fateful day arrived and a tearful Nokia CEO ended a press conference with the words,

We didn't do anything wrong, but somehow, we lost.

Although I personally don't believe this statement to be anywhere close to true, the fact was real, there was no more Nokia, at least as an independent maker of mobile phones, but a subsidiary of Microsoft, whose mobile products were praised when people used the word sucks.

Fast forward to August, 2015. I have recently started my job and it's been less than a month I've been staying thousands of kilometres from home, when my smartphone smartly resigned from its job. It got bricked, and never woke up. Almost a month later, I got another phone. Guess who saved my day during this time? That good old Nokia 1600, the first cellphone we got a decade back in 2006. It was as good as the day it was bought. Ready to serve it's purpose as a device you can trust, you can depend upon.

So when a few days back the first Android device by the rebuilt brand of Nokia sold out it's stock in less than a minute in China, it made a conversation topic in social media. Much unlike anything else in recent times, all those posts had one thing in common — optimism. Friends texted the fact. Everybody seemed to buckle up to get their hands on one. Time will show how much of that hope is to realise, while we keep our fingers crossed; because it takes much more than grit, guts and gumption to make it in the market of the next billion. Because cheap and quirky things are interesting, maybe attractive too. But when you spend most of your day outside, and the 5 inch of glass slab in your pocket is pretty much your window to outside world, I'd much rather settle for one feature, reliability.

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