So where did Nokia go wrong?

A few weeks ago Nokia did some blood-letting at the top when its CEO (Olli-Pekka Kallasvuo) was ousted, along with close colleague Anssi Vanjoki, and in came Microsoft’s Stephen Elop.  We get quite used to changes at the top when an organisation is not performing, and to be honest I thought that Nokia had changed CEO a few times in recent years.  I was quite surprised when I realised that Kallasvuo had been at the helm for four years, and his predecessor (Jorma Ollila) even longer having been made CEO in 1992, a staggeringly long time in the fickle world of handset manufacturers.  

Ollila had ridden the crest of the GSM wave during its meteoric rise to become the dominant standard for mobile communications across the planet.  It’s worth remembering just how important Nokia was in that development.  

The solid Nokia 2110

Nokia had been at the very centre of GSM standards production in the late 1980′s and early 1990′s and was itself ideally placed to capitalise on its position. It had already built a great track record with its first/second generation cellular handsets (NMT, TACS) and went on to produce what was arguably the first real GSM handset, the Nokia 2110. I used one for several years. It was well built, the UI was easy to understand, the radio and speech performance were excellent, and it had a good car kit (when we still needed and used such things).  

Motorola Timeport

Nokia went on to produce a steady flow of excellent handsets, generally conservative in nature, not always first with innovation, but always executed well. Nokia was not first with a tri-band handset, nor a WAP handset, nor a GPRS handset (from memory, Motorola were first with most of these), but when Nokia did bring these products to market they worked better than their competitors, and through it all they kept their well thought out and consistent UI. My, how we struggled to understand how to use the incomprehensible Motorola handsets, cutting edge though they were. And how we peered with squinting eyes at their tiny displays trying to make out the microscopic characters. And how we giggled at the Ericsson devotees with the labours of their love clutched to their bosoms, frantically trying to learn a new UI with every new handset.  

Nokia cleverly segmented the market and produced ranges of handsets to match. Hence the Series 30 basic and cheap devices, the Series 40 feature phones, and the Series 60 smartphones. With a small number of high quality and well designed handset platforms they churned out model after model, all working exactly the same way and at low incremental cost for each new model. With their consistent designs and familiar UI they never alienated or confused their customers when they changed handsets every year or so. Meanwhile their competitors kept making brand new models with new features and new UI, apparently aimed at confusing their users at every turn and destroying any attempt at brand loyalty. I kept looking at Nokia handsets, and at their competition, and wondering how it was that Nokia could so consistently keep getting it right, and that the rest could equally consistently keep getting it wrong. And the fortunes of Nokia products were reflected in the company’s results as its market share grew and its profits did likewise.  

And then something went wrong. As with all such things going wrong it’s not easy to say just what or why it happened. But a large part of it must be due to Nokia’s dependence on Symbian  and the Series 60 platform for its smartphones at a time when everyone’s attention focussed on the fast-emerging smartphone market, driven by Apple and Android.  

Nokia N-Gage. Try using it as a phone

Nokia had become complacent as often happens when a company is well ahead in the market.  Encouraged by the success of their standard platforms they ventured out into some exploratory niche devices such as the N-Gage gaming device, the N92 video phone, the 7710 mobile TV (DVB-H) handset, and bizarre form factors such as the 3650, or the 7700.  They presumably thought that extra functionality would sell handsets, and forgot that excellence is just as important.  Whilst their Series 40 platform continued to make them loads of money to bankroll the rest of their operations they spent too long dabbling and took their eye off the smartphone market.  

N95 - a classic

That’s not to say they didn’t also produce some good devices along the way.  The N80 was a really well made and well-featured Series 60 device, albeit with a screen that was just too small.  They improved on that with the N95, a device which justifiably flew off the shelves.  They proved they could still make good devices if they tried, but what had not changed was their dependence on the same Symbian / Series 60 platform.  The UI still worked but started to feel dated.  Crucially it was bogged down with a scroll-and-click model.  

So when touch screens became good enough and large enough to fit on a practical mobile phone, they were stuck.  They had most likely been blinded to the touch screen model that demanded accurate use of a stylus, as adopted by Ericsson (and Sony Ericsson), by Windows CE devices and by Palm.  Happily they had not followed that dead-end route, but nor had they forged a touch screen strategy of their own.  

It was Apple’s inability to stick to the norm that rocked Nokia’s world.  Nokia had painted itself into a UI corner with its dependence on the limited nature of the Series 60 platform so were quite incapable of responding quickly with a touch screen product of their own.  The very thing that had propelled them to early success had led to their being left behind when the real smartphone emerged.

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I’m really looking forward to my next “international” telemarking call

“What?” you ask.  Why on earth would anyone look forward to one of those annoying interruptions to life from someone speaking broken English and sticking inexorably to a pre-written script?

Oh no, a telemarketer

Oh no, a telemarketer

Like (probably) everyone else I used to get very annoyed when the phone rang, I answered and after a few seconds of quiet a voice, clearly struggling with pronouncing my name (and English in general) asked if it was me speaking.

We do at least have some advance warning of telemarketing calls as The Outsider household has invested in Caller Display, which generally indicates “International” when one of these calls comes in.  Luckily we only have two international friends, and they are far more likely to email than to phone us, so we have a pretty foolproof way of detection.  So we get time to steel ourselves for the upcoming verbal battle, or to decide whether to answer at all.

I have tried various tactics when getting the “Can I speak to Mr Outsider please?” question.  First I tried the “ask a question back” approach.  I asked why they wanted to know if it was me.  I asked where they got my phone number from.  I asked why they were calling me yet again when it was clear from previous calls that I was not at all interested in what they had to say to me or to offer me.

Then I tried the protest approach.  I protested that I was a member of the Telephone Preference Service and hence did not wish to receive telemarketing calls.  I protested that it was my right to protect myself from unwanted telemarketing calls and that they should amend their database so as not to call me again.

Next I tried the silent approach.  I noticed that the call only connects you to an operator when you speak (presumably so they don’t waste “valuable” operator time talking to fax machines and the like), so when answering the call I simply kept quiet.  Most times the call was terminated in a few seconds without the need to speak to anyone.

But suddenly I had a revelation.  The reason why I was feeling angry at getting these calls was that I was not in control.  THEY were interrupting MY peace and tranquillity, and the call was on their terms not mine.  So I decided to turn the tables.

Grenada, in the Caribbean

When the very next call came in I started with “Thankyou for calling Life At Luthien, can I have your name please?”  The caller, a pleasant sounding woman, tried her script, but I kept responding with “Can I have you name please?”  Eventually she gave in and told me her name was Cindy.  Progress.  Next I ignored everything she said from her script and asked where she was calling from.  At last I found out she was in Grenada, in the Caribbean.  Interesting, as I thought that all these calls came from India.  More progress.  I then got on to asking about the weather, but at this point she terminated the call.  YES!  SHE terminated the call, not me.  RESULT.

Funnily enough I’ve not been called again, but when that call comes in I’m ready.  I’m ready to have a long conversation on my terms and to find out something about the person that’s on the phone wanting to speak to me.  Not their company.  Not their product.  I want to know something about the person.  In a world of increasing depersonalisation, I want to put people first.  Of course it will probably do nothing for the caller’s success statistics, and may get me a reputation as a weirdo, but if it reduces me stress levels and annoyance at telemarketing organisations, isn’t that a small price to pay?

Footnote: curiously I’ve not received any more calls lately.  I have either scared them away or our number is marked as a business line.  Definitely worth the effort (and fun).

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Whatever happened to the coffee break?

Everything stops for... coffee

When I started work in what was then Post Office Telecommunications, the group in which I was working always paused for a coffee break mid-morning, and a tea break mid-afternoon.  It was communal, social, a time to swap stories and information.  Everyone did it across the site where I was working, and I suspect it happened across the whole company.  10.00am and 3.00pm, don’t expect anyone to answer their phones.  And my guess is that electricity consumption peaked at those times too causing the company to install water boilers to even out the load.

Sometime around the 1980′s the coffee break disappeared.  It’s difficult to pin down just when it happened, but working patterns changed and almost overnight the social breaks in the morning and afternoon changed too.  I think a large part of the change can be laid at the feet (or keyboard?) of office automation and the ascendancy of the PC.

The PC’s impact on the office was actually gradual.  In their first incarnation they did so little of what you wanted to do that they were only used as an occasional tool.  Bear in mind they were not networked, or if they were the network was internal only, often in small workgroups.  But the change had been made from looking around the office to looking at the screen.  Once email, and later instant messaging became ubiquitous, office sociability was lost forever.  Why stop for a coffee break to socialise when you can chat to your colleagues only a few desks away using IM?

And I want it now!

The emergence of the screen is not all bad for office working.  They have at least meant that offices have become quiet places to work.  Again in the 1980′s and 1990′s the phone was the dominant means of communication, and as open plan offices became the norm they became more and more noisy.  And it only takes one noisy person in an open plan office to wreck the chances of concentrating for most of the people on that floor.  And there weren’t even ipods for us to plug in and tune out.

So did I really miss the coffee break?  I was reminded of its importance at an “away day” when the discussion got round to the benefits of chance conversations that happen around the water cooler.  I realised that the water cooler conversations were exactly what we used to have during coffee breaks.  Now get this – because we all lead virtual lives and many people work from home, the proposal was to have a virtual water cooler.  Yes, an internet-based place to drop in and have chance conversations, to swap stories with one another, to bounce ideas around and maybe, by chance, come up with something useful to pursue.  If technology caused the loss of social interaction, then technology can solve it.

Bring back the coffee, I say.

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Google saves me time. Gosh, thanks

Now done in an Instant

What must now be a few weeks ago Google launched what they call a search enhancement, Google Instant.  Thanks to the power-crazed programmers of Mountain View, each search I make now takes just a few seconds less (or is that fewer?).  As I type into the search box, not only does Google Suggest present me with a string of possible things it thought I was going to type, but also Google Instant now presents the search results for what it thinks is the single most likely thing I’m going to type.

Spookily it seems to guess quite well.  I suppose that means I’m rather predictable.  Every now and then I try to fool it by thinking of search terms it’s not likely to guess easily, such as “african mind enhancing foods”.  Not that I’m interested in African mind-enhancing foods, it’s just a difficult to predict search term (not surprisingly as there are no true  search results for African mind-enhancing foods).

More CO2...

The engineer in me pondered over what the consequences of Google Instant are for the Google infrastructure.  When I used to do a Google search I needed one or two hits to the Google megalith to come back with the right answer.  Now it typically hits their server four or five times each time I do a search.  Maybe some of the search guesses are common and so cached in the periphery of the Google cloud, but at lest a small percentage must be causing an extra search to be run.  Back in January 2009 there was an article in the Times about the environmental impact of performing a Google search.  After a false start of claiming each search generated as much as 7g of CO2 emissions, the article backtracked to the Google-backed figure of 0.2g of CO2, claiming they meant that a “Google search” was a several-minute-long exercise involving many searches and much pontificating on the various results.  Maybe they were looking for African mind-enhancing foods.

Nevertheless, even at 0.2g of CO2 per actual hit on the Google search infrastructure, Google Instant must be causing a multiplying up of the total number of searches being run, and hence consuming more CO2-emitting power.  Maybe Google argues that the total search now takes you less time, so reducing the total carbon emissions.  I think it just means I now spend longer looking at the screen with nothing happening, and that still burns carbon.  I don’t think I do more as a result.

But don’t get me wrong, I enjoy using Google Instant.  It’s fun.  And it means you get to see some results you might otherwise have missed.  So now I can spend the extra time that Google saves me meandering around stuff that sounds interesting but which I wouldn’t have seen otherwise.

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The return of dinosaur rock

I don’t know whether to laugh or cry. Let me explain.

In spite of my earnest efforts to interest my two sons (12 and nearly 10) in what could be broadly called rock and pop music during their short lives, I have thus far failed rather miserably.  The most I can get them onto is Classic FM, and at worst it’s Just A Minute on Radio 4.  Disaster.  And for me, a child of the 50′s who was immersed in some of the best pop music ever during the 60′s, it’s highly puzzling. Why are my offspring so resistant?

Whenever I turn on the radio in the car I get howls of derision from the rear (of the car) and wild stabbing motions towards either the on/off switch or the channel change knob.  It’s so depressing.  Ok, I admit that most current music as played on Radio 1 is not that great.  I’m not generally into hip/hop for instance (with a few exceptions) and much of the dance music around is not that creative.  Meanwhile Radio 2 can have flashes of good music and intelligent, even fun presenters but can also be somewhat dire at times.  So if the young lads were indeed being discriminating in their opinions I’d be happy to discuss it with them.  But no, it’s an indiscriminate aversion to pop music that I object to.

So imagine my surprise when on one day last week, son #2 was trying hard to find the lyrics and music to “Smoke on the water” after they were playing it in Rock Club at his school, and son #1 was keen to hear the end of “Stairway to heaven” when playing on the breakfast show.  Curious.  Maybe I’ve been barking up the wrong tree, or playing the wrong fiddle, or plucking the wrong ukulele.  Seems I have to compromise my own standards and resurrect Dinosaur Rock.

You see I never was much into metal, and the likes of Zeppelin and Deep Purple didn’t really excite or interest me in the way it should.  I didn’t actively dislike the stuff, but I appreciated it more than I liked it.  I did try hard, but I was always more into the more progressive sounds, and when punk crashed onto the scene there was no going back.

Now the enlightened days of Radio 2 and a junior school with a music teacher who looks like she should have been in a rock band, and I have to cope with a couple of converts.  So I guess I’ll have to scour the shops for tracks from the likes of Blackmore, Gillen, Plant and more.  I guess the dinosaur angle will at least appeal to son #1.

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You’re retired now, so what do you do?

It’s a question I often get asked, especially by ex-colleagues such as at the Genie reunion. The “what do you do” (WDYD) question is one that pervades all working life, and is indicative of our need to categorise and define people by their employment. When I was a full-time employee the answer was easy – “I work for O2″. “Oh,” would be the response, in a sort of not-knowing way. I used to add things like “in the group technology team” if I thought the inquirer could handle that level of detail with eyes glazing over.

Now that more people have portfolio jobs, with fingers and toes in many different part-jobs (sorry that sounded judgemental, I meant real jobs but not necessarily all full time) it becomes a dilema. Which job to say first, how to make it sound like things really are going well without adding too many added extras to the apparently “main job”, how to avoid it sounding like you’re “busy doing nothing”.

And it’s the same with being retired. No longer is there a single defining job that I can easily respond with when confronted with the WDYD question. And if I start listing all the things I get up to in a typical week, it sounds like I’m trying to justify my existence, to prove that I have a valid place in society, to prove that I’m still a worthwhile person. Sometimes I simply say “Nothing!” It’s quite effective, and is probably all the enquirer really wants to hear.

One thing I can say is what I don’t do with my time. Working folk have this perception that retired people spend all their time on the golf course, or gardening, or reading the paper, or washing the car, or going to the library to search though local planning applications, or even watching daytime TV. And the answer is no to most of those. I don’t play golf, the garden is as scruffy as ever, we don’t get papers (other than the free one that’s used for guinea-pig bedding), the cars remain dirty and I certainly don’t turn the TV on until the evening. Mind you I have been known to check the planning applications website a few times.

One rather sobering thought about having the WDYD question lobbed at me is that I now realise and understand more clearly how women who “give up” their job to raise families feel. I’ve always appreciated that raising a family is all but a full time job, and was always amazed how so many women (my wonderful wife included) juggle full or part time employment with the very real job of Managing Director of the family unit.  Doing nothing?  I don’t think so.

For me it’s now all about putting something back into the local community.  In a world where it seems too many people are on the take all the time, trying to get something for nothing, having the chance to reverse the trend just a tiny bit sounds to me like a worthwhile way of spending my time.

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So that was 10 years, what have we done?

The great thing about looking back after a long period like 10 years is you can see more clearly what you achieved, how much has been done since, and how different things really were then.  It’s something you completely miss at the time, when things seem like they are moving so slowly.

And so it was that some 180 poeple who worked for Genie Internet came together last Friday to celebrate and remember what we started 10 years ago.  An excuse, if one were needed, for a party with plenty of booze to oil the wheels of memory, and few words from the kind sponsors who chipped in a little funding for the evening.  Yes, this was a privately funded party which we paid for ourselved, not a corporate bash.  We’re just friends, not employees.

From the first demo Genie home page

I say 10 years, but this was just a trifle fictitious, albeit convenient for the snappy “10 years” title.  The first incarnation of Genie was nearly three years earlier, when the internet barely existed, when database driven websites were a rarity, and consequently when none of the tools needed to create a run complex web site had been invented.  Just about everything had to be built from scratch, which meant a) it all cost a lot, and b) you end up having to focus on the enabling technology, not on the services you’re trying to create using that technology.

But I digress.  10 years it was that we were remembering, 10 years since the start of the mobile internet, 10 years since the much-maligned WAP service was launched to tremendous fanfare into a sceptical and largely uninterested market, 10 years since texting shifted from niche to a mainstream must-have for a huge proportion of the customer base.

The Genie "green" logo

It’s easy to claim firsts, you just have to look hard enough and add enough qualifiers to stake a claim to be first in almost any field.  But Genie really can claim a long string of genuine firsts, many quoted at the “do” and which I won’t bore you with by repeating here.  Suffice to say that we can say we’ve been there (first), done that (first), and watched the rest pile in afterwards.  Trouble is, I have often been of the opinion that being first is both risky and expensive, and seldom brings the extra rewards that justify that high cost.  Think Concorde, think APT, think hovercraft.  All great pioneering inventions that failed to deliver on business promise.

Would someone else have done what Genie did, or attempted to do, had we not done it?  Inevitably.  Would we have made more money if we’d waited until someone else had done the pioneering work and created the tools?  Maybe.  Would people remember Genie if we’d not been first?  Probably not.  Would we have had so much fun at work if we’d not been making it all up as we went along?  Definately not.  Would we have held a party to celebrate 10 years of embarking on that exciting project?  I think not.

So here’s to innovation and a great buch of people who had a good time working together inventing things and who continue to enjoy each others’ company 10 years on.  I’m glad I was part of it.

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Genie 10 year reunion today

Later today over 180 people formerly engaged with the Genie Internet project will make their way to a reunion bash at Hammersmith, just a stone’s throw from the office we occupied for three years during the heyday of Genie.

I’m really looking forward to seeing many “old” friends there, no doubt wielding their walking frames, thick reading glasses and hearing aids. Maybe not the walking frames, although these may be needed when we all leave around midnight. Cash bar though, a sign of the times of austerity in the business.

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