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How Nokia made the modern cell phone

CNET logo CNET 27-02-2017 Kent German
How Nokia made the modern cell phone: <p style="margin-bottom:1em;padding:0px 0.2em;font-size:13px;">Every story has to start somewhere and Nokia's started with the simple 1011. <em>Nokia</em></p>© Provided by CNET

Every story has to start somewhere and Nokia's started with the simple 1011. Nokia

Nokia. Knock-ia. Know-kia. Noh-keea.

However you pronounce it, few companies (other than Motorola, of course) have been so influential in creating the cell phone that we use today. Apple, LG and Samsung may get all of the glory now, but Nokia dominated the mobile industry for two decades. When I started at CNET more than 10 years ago, a week rarely went by where I wasn't reviewing one of the company's phones. At the time, it felt like an avalanche that would never end.

That avalanche had humble beginnings. Founded in 1865 when Finland was still part of Tsarist Russia, Nokia (its name comes from a Finnish town), was mainly a small paper company until the early 20th century. It wasn't until 1992 when, after it had made everything from telephone cables to rubber boots, Nokia built its first commercially-available cell phone, the Nokia 1011. Operating on a GSM network (a technology that we still use today) which the company helped build, the 1011 just made calls and sent texts. From then on, Nokia kept building phones and it quickly grew into the world's largest mobile vendor.

That's why it was so shocking when 22 years later, it sold its entire phone business to Microsoft for $2.2 billion. Nokia, it seemed, had hung up forever under the crushing weight of the iPhone and Android.

But then again, not so fast. As we approach the 2017 Mobile World Congress show in Barcelona, our Finnish friends, or at least a form of them, have confirmed that they will be at the show to share "the next exciting chapter in the Nokia consumer story". That story should include the Nokia 6, the first Android devices from a company that just a few years ago had banked everything on Windows Phone, plus a possible "old" surprise (more on that later). Honestly, the Nokia 6, which is already on sale in China, doesn't look terribly exciting from the specs we've seen so far, but I'm hopeful for a comeback from a company that has given us so much. What is this "much" you ask? Well, just consider this.

Complete coverage of Mobile World Congress 2017

Handsets that everyone had

If you owned a cell phone at any point over the last 25 years, there's a good chance that you had at least one Nokia. And if you had a Nokia around 2000, I'd wager it was the 5110. Big, sturdy, and available with a rainbow of changeable faceplates, the 5110 didn't offer much by current standards, but it did its job and did it well. Its US variant, the 5190, was the first cell phone I ever owned, and I'm certain it would still function flawlessly today, 19 years after its birth.

Other Nokia handsets that reached near-ubiquitous status were the 8210, the 3210, and the 3310. Each one was reliable, indestructible and easy-to-use with sleek designs you could slip in your pocket (goodbye, phone bricks and stubby antennas!). And battery life? We measured it not in hours, but in days. Perhaps that last point is why we may even see the 3310 get a second life in Barcelona.

It was devices like these that yanked the cell phone out of Gordon Gecko's hands and put it in the hands of millions. Nokia was incredibly successful in emerging markets for years. Take, for example, the bare-bones simple 1100 from 2003. Priced at about $100 when it was first introduced, it became massively popular in Africa and India selling more than 250 million units. Even today, it's one of the best-selling phones in history.

Dare to design

Nokia's earliest designs were all about function: black rectangles with tiny screens and a mass of buttons. (Come to think of it, we still use a lot of black rectangles). It wasn't long, however, before the company got more creative. 

Debuting in 1998, the 8110 pioneered the slider phone design and starred in "The Matrix" (one of many Nokia phones to make it big in Hollywood). More sliders came, including the all-metal 8800 and the camera-equipped 7650. By and large, though, most of the company's phones have been candy bar designs. Nokia only dabbled in flip phones, even as they were the rage around the world, and it made just two swivel phones that I can remember: the 7370 and 7705 Twist.

But when it really wanted to, Nokia wasn't afraid to make statement. Sometimes the phones were more weird than useful, but that may have been the point. Nokia introduced square phones, a model with an amazingly-cool flip-out QWERTY keyboard, a handset with a circular keypad, a twisting phone, a transparent mobile with paper faceplates that you could design, a "taco" phone and some of the first rugged designs that existed outside of Nextel's stable.

Perhaps the strangest designs were the 7280 and 7380 "lipstick" phones that made up the company's "Fashion" line. Though the 7280 would drive modern texters insane (you had to scroll through the alphabet on the screen and select letters individually), few phones at the time had full keyboards. I got the hang of it when I used it and it delivered respectable features (for the time) and great call quality. 

Work, play and feature firsts

Nokia pushed the envelope early with features that we couldn't live without today. The 3310 (2001) had voice dialing, the 7110 (1999) was the first with a WAP browser, the 5510 introduced a music player (2001), the 6310 brought Bluetooth (2001), and the 7650 (2002) was the first Nokia camera phone. Yes, they still made calls, too.

Remember the simple, but very addicting game Snake? Though it had existed in arcades since the 1970s, Snake won a massive audience when Nokia made it a standard-issue feature. It first appeared in 1997 on the 6110 and continued to evolve into a full-color game with graphics. The company was also early with dedicated gaming handsets like 2003's N-Gage, but they didn't prove to be much more than novelty devices.

On a similar note (bad pun alert!), Nokia's signature ringtone also helped popularize the idea of a melody as a call alert. Lifted from Francisco Tarrega's 1902 Spanish guitar composition called Gran Vals, the tune first appeared on the 2110 in 1994. Even today, odds are that you'll recognize it if you hear it. This violist did.

Early smartphones

Though basic phones had long been Nokia's bread and butter, it also helped create the smartphone. Running on Symbian, a mobile operating system that Nokia helped develop with other manufacturers, devices like the E-series and N-series were well-designed and packed with features. One of the best examples was the Nokia N93. A beast of a thing, it had a bulky, but cool twisting design and a (then) powerful 3.2-megapixel camera with Carl Zeiss optics, 3x optical zoom and MPEG-4 video recording capability.

The trouble was that as great as these handsets were, they never translated into mainstream consumer success. They did gets some traction in Europe and Asia, but were quite rare in the United States. Remember that at the time, US customers expected to buy a phone with a carrier subsidy (in exchange for a contract, of course). Without that subsidy, a phone like the N93 cost about $550. We're used to paying that kind of money now, but not so much 10 years ago.

Even worse, three months after we reviewed the N93's successor, the N95, in April 2007, a certain handset from Apple came along and changed the smartphone game forever. And when Google's Android entered the scene a year later, Nokia couldn't quite keep up. Even its Windows Phone-powered Lumia devices, while fantastic in their own right, didn't become immensely popular.

Good luck... you're going to need it

We'll have to wait until the press event on February 26 to see for sure what HMD, the new company that has licensed the Nokia name, has in store. Besides the Nokia 6, other rumors predict two additional Android phones with scaled-down specs and even a reboot of the classic 3310. My highest hope? I'd love to be surprised with a spectacular phone that rebuilds the company's rich history and make it a bright star again. Maybe a completely bonkers design or a feature that we haven't seen before? Either one would be a classic Nokia move.

Of course, those are stratospherically high expectations at a time when most phones look alike and share many of the same features. Nokia will have an uphill battle on a few fronts: competitors like Apple, Google and even Samsung won't cede ground willingly and it will have to entice a younger generation that wasn't raised on a Finnish phone diet. Former fans like me are naturally curious, but anyone who's used nothing but an iPhone won't be won over by brand nostalgia alone. As much as I like the idea of a new 3310 with a battery that would last a month, I can't see myself using one.

In any case, more eyes than mine will be on Nokia as it takes the stage at Mobile World Congress. With former powerhouse BlackBerry also promising an Android phone, the story of the show could be the "comeback" of past mobile greats. Whatever happens, CNET will be in Barcelona to bring you the full story so check back with us then. 

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