Bob Schwartz

When Nokia Ruled the Mobile World

Nokia 1110

Microsoft is reportedly killing the Nokia brand, after having spent billions to buy the iconic company in hopes of boosting its stalled Windows Phone presence.

We are not surprised. Microsoft is the all-time tech accidental/incidental behemoth. Right place, right time, a few fortuitous decisions, strategic appropriations rather than innovations, and the next thing you know, we’re living and working in a mostly Microsoft world. Which is why Microsoft is constantly fixing what isn’t broken, and annoying and frustrating millions of users every second of every day.

The Tech Advisor article on the Nokia move led to one on the Top 10 Best Selling Mobile Phones in History.

Of those best selling mobile phones, 9 of the 10 are from Nokia (the Motorola RAZR V3 comes in at number 8). You may be used to what you think are big numbers, but at the top of the list—maybe forever—is the Nokia 1100:

The best-selling mobile phone ever is believed to be the Nokia 1100, which was released in 2003 and sold more than 250 million units. That’s more than any iPhone model. The success of the Nokia 1100 was not down to its features – it didn’t have a camera or even a colour display – but it was cheap, durable and did the jobs any mobile phone should.

Depending on your generation, you may not recognize the form factor of these Nokia phones. It was called a “candy bar” for pretty obvious reasons. If you were around for these, you also know that these were some of the most stylishly functional tech gadgets of all time: strikingly beautiful, naturally comfortable, reliably useful. Nokia did not sell over a billion and a half of the phones on the list because they were the only ones around; they sold them because they were the best and the coolest. (If that sounds like the iPhone story, it might a little, except that the Nokia phones were way cooler than any iPhone.)

Time does pass, and best is not biggest forever. Nokia’s big mistake was sticking to its proprietary operating system, Symbian, rather than adopting the then-nascent Android. If Nokia had gone Android early, it is possible we wouldn’t be talking about Samsung or Apple mobile the way we do. What later ended up happening was the marriage between a number 3 operating system, Windows, to a long past noble brand. It was a union that was never going to last.

In that box over there, though, are a couple of gorgeous Nokia phones that carried me into the mobile age and that I relinquished with great reluctance. A few years ago, when smartphones were still using the old, bigger SIM cards, I even switched SIMs and fired one of those Nokias up when a smartphone went temporarily down. Sure the Nokia seems rudimentary now. But I could still talk and listen, and still caress that Scandinavian beauty in my hand. Something Microsoft would never understand.

Why Be Curious?

Curious

In his latest book Curious: The Desire to Know and Why Your Future Depends on It, Ian Leslie has found an essential key to the way things are and the way they—and we—might be much better.

Social observers are always looking for that one thing, that overriding concept, which succinctly explains how we got where we are, and how, if we are interested, we can use it as a way to move forward. Think Nassim Nicholas Taleb’s Black Swan. Think Malcolm Gladwell’s Tipping Point. Sometimes these concepts are interesting and useful, sometimes faddish and fatuous.

It’s impossible not to notice that something is fundamentally different about—or missing from—these times. It’s too facile just to inventory the innovative tools and techniques we enjoy, though that’s more than enough for the businesses making billions on them. We want an explanation.

Leslie explains:

A society that values order above all else will seek to suppress curiosity. But a society that believes in progress, innovation, and creativity will cultivate it, recognizing that the inquiring minds of its people constitute its most valuable asset. In medieval Europe, the inquiring mind—especially if it inquired too closely into the edicts of church or state—was stigmatized. During the Renaissance and Reformation, received wisdoms began to be interrogated, and by the time of the Enlightenment, European societies started to see that their future lay with the curious and encouraged probing questions rather than stamping on them. The result was the biggest explosion of new ideas and scientific advances in history.

The great unlocking of curiosity translated into a cascade of prosperity for the nations that precipitated it. Today, we cannot know for sure if we are in the middle of this golden period or at the end of it. But we are, at the very least, in a lull. With the important exception of the Internet, the innovations that catapulted Western societies ahead of the global pack are thin on the ground, while the rapid growth of Asian and South American economies has not yet been accompanied by a comparable run of indigenous innovation. Tyler Cowen, a professor of economics at George Mason University in Virginia, has termed the current period the Great Stagnation….

Our educational system is increasingly focused on preparing students for specific jobs. To teach someone to be an engineer or a lawyer or a programmer is not the same as teaching them to be a curious learner—yet the people who make the best engineers, lawyers, and programmers tend to be the most curious learners. So we find ourselves stuck in a self-defeating cycle: we ask schools to focus on preparing students for the world of work rather than on inspiring them, and we end up with uninspired students and mediocre professionals. The more we chase the goal of efficient education, the further it recedes.

The rewards of curiosity have never been higher, but our ideas about how curiosity works are muddled and misguided. We romanticize the natural curiosity of children and worry that it will be contaminated by knowledge, when the opposite is true. We confuse the practice of curiosity with ease of access to information and forget that real curiosity requires the exercise of effort. We focus on the goals of learning rather than valuing learning for itself. Epistemic curiosity is in danger of becoming the province of cognitive elites, with far too many of us losing or never learning the capacity to think deeply about a subject or a person. In a world where vast inequalities in access to information are finally being leveled, a new divide is emerging—between the curious and the incurious.

Curious is much more than just valuable diagnosis and description. After fascinating sections on How Curiosity Works and The Curiosity Divide, Leslie proposes a practical prescription, Seven Ways to Stay Curious:

Stay Foolish
Build the Database
Forage Like a Foxhog
Ask the Big Why
Be a Thinkerer
Question Your Teaspoons
Turn Puzzles into Mysteries

No summary or series of excerpts can do this book justice. Well-written and compelling, it is, to repeat, an essential. Read it. Even if you don’t want to apply it to yourself or your children or your colleagues, it is a book to keep handy as we try to remake what isn’t working and navigate unsteadily to a newer world.

See more from Ian Leslie here.