The Rise and Fall of Nokia review – fascinating insight into the Finnish, and now finished, tech firm

With a flawless idea, the mobile phone pioneer cornered the market. But by ignoring the touchscreen, things quickly went south

Famous and Finnish? Jean Sibelius, Tove Jansson, Kimi Räikkönen and – almost certainly most famous of all – Nokia. Dada da da, dada da da, dada da da, daaaa. (That’s the ringtone tune, if you can’t read music – composed by a Spaniard, as it happens). If you write it out as actual music, it is a gently tumbling phrase of quavers and crotchets. That in no way reflects the fortunes of the company over time, which are more of a steady upwards incline, followed by a precipice.

Nokia didn’t always do telecommunications and electronics. It started off, in 1865, as a pulp mill before getting into rubber. It made flexible cables, and the company was good at adapting to change, too (well, until later, the precipice). In the latter part of the 20th century, Nokia expanded into phones and became the global market leader. It invented something that cost a little over £100, that everyone in the whole world wanted or needed and, every few years, could be convinced to buy a new version of. As a business idea, it was pretty much the best one ever. Take that one on Dragons’ Den and even Deborah Meaden might show some interest.

Not that it was immediately obvious to everyone. Jorma Nieminen, the “father” of the Finnish mobile phone industry as you know it, remembers his sales manager, Ilpo Rossi, packing the parts of an SRP202 – carphone, receiver, antenna, battery – into a case. Nieminen asked Rossi what he was doing. Rossi said that some people wanted to have a phone at the cottage, on the boat, in a hotel and so on. But they didn’t have a portable one, so he was putting one together. “That started the development of a mobile phone,” says Nieminen.

“Everyone laughed,” remembers Matti Makkonen, another Finnish telecommunications pioneer. “Who’d carry a phone with them?”

Who’s laughing now? (Well, apart from my mum, who is yet to be converted. She does have one, but she doesn’t know where it is and she can’t ring it as she doesn’t know the number.)

There are several moments like that in this documentary. Who would imagine that X (something now everyday and normal) would become a thing? Having a phone that wasn’t the same size as your cottage or your boat; text messaging; offering different ringtones (just in case you got bored of the original); games such as Snake. But the guys at Nokia knew. And they continued to adapt and develop and expand until they were biggest and the best.

Now, you might think that a film, in Finnish with subtitles, in which a bunch of suits and techies, blokes (almost exclusively) called Matti, Ilpo, Jorma, Mika and Ove talk about SRP202s and NMT900s and reminisce in a rather self-congratulatory manner about how they came to rule the world, would have limited appeal, unless you were looking for some kind of motivational business experience. But you would be wrong.

First, because Nokia is – was – more than just a telecommunications company in Finland. Its annual budget was larger than the government’s. It was a part of the country, certainly a source of national pride. Until the pride was replaced by shame.

Second, because it all went wrong (there is a clue in the title to be fair). While this might have been bad news for Ove, Mika, Jorma et al – as well as bad news for the economy of their country – it makes it a much more interesting documentary. Not just grey techy men, but The Fallen. Not just a business story, but a morality tale for late-era capitalism.

Some people made a lot of money, went off and bought cottages and boats that were even bigger than that first SRP202. But, with global domination, quality lost out to quantity. The pioneering spirit lost, Nokia took its eye off the ball and Apple and Samsung usurped it when the smartphone came of age.

So, when in the past it had been them coming up with ideas that people laughed at before fully adopting, this time it was someone else. Steve Jobs. No buttons on his phone, just a screen that you touch and swipe, and not just a phone but everything; your life, the love of your life ... hahaha... Oh.“

Nokia had dismissed touchscreens as a gimmick that used too much battery. After which they were playing catchup and they didn’t ever manage it. Their market share eroded and Nokia’s mobile phone business was bought by Microsoft in 2014. At its peak Nokia was valued at $300bn, but in 2016 Microsoft sold it in two parts for a paltry £350m. Phones are no longer produced in Finland, and the Nokia tune – no longer just annoying – took on a note of melancholy.

The Rise and Fall of Nokia was shown on BBC Four

• This article was amended on 11 July 2018. Errors introduced during editing led the review to say Nokia “was bought by Microsoft. At its peak, Nokia was valued at $300bn, but when Microsoft sold it in 2016 to Finnish company HMD it went for a paltry £350m.” Microsoft bought Nokia’s mobile phone business, not Nokia itself. And in 2016, Microsoft sold the brand to two companies, HMD and Foxconn. In addition information supplied by the documentary was wrong to say that Nokia ceased production in Finland in 2016. That reference has been removed from this review.

Contributor

Sam Wollaston

The GuardianTramp

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