In the past five years since moving from England to New York, I’ve been asked this short question many times. Perhaps it’s because in those five years, just about everyone I know here has owned a Samsung or an iPhone. It was actually rather normal to see lots of Nokia phones on the street in London, but then again in 2007, there was no such thing as Android, and the iPhone didn’t even have an app store.
Of course, during these past five years we’ve seen enormous change in the world of mobile phones, namely that ‘smartphones’ became an everyday word for the shiny pretty things that we have been using for texting, emailing, surfing, tweeting, liking, shooting, sharing, pinning, calculating, editing, navigating, shopping, planning, reading, IMing and (dare I say it) calling. Five years ago your phone could only do a few of these things, but not all of them.
Go into any mobile phone store at the end of 2012 and ask for a phone that can do all of the above, and they’ll be able to sell you one for about $50. And the choice of devices are as varied as they ever were. Brands such as Sony, LG, Apple, HTC, Motorola, Samsung, BlackBerry, and Nokia are all there, patiently waiting for you to pick them up, punch in your Gmail and Facebook details and become your pride and joy for the next, er, 4 months.
So, with all this choice, and with the utter domination of Apple’s iPhone and the plethora of 'cheap and cheerful' to top-end Android phones, why Nokia? Why buy a brand name that seemed to be fizzling out like a soggy firecracker? Why not join the hordes of consumers who were snapping up iPhones as soon as they are launched, or Androids that are available on every single network, from Virgin Mobile to Verizon? Why support a brand that had the audacity to release the infamous N97, a phone that was both outrageously expensive and outrageously awful (even for 2008 standards?)
Well. It comes down to a few personal decisions that have little to do with the N97, or the fact that iPhones and Samsungs are too ubiquitous to be unique.
Firstly, say what you want about Nokia’s software history with its glitches, grinds, reboots, freezes, and on-and-off support. We’ve all had our fair share of problems with that, whether it was an E72 that ‘just froze’, or an N8 that ‘just rebooted itself’ or an N9 that just refused to open an app without a manual restart. We may have loved (or indeed still love) the S40, Symbian^3/Anna/Belle, Maemo, and MeeGo-Harmattan operating systems that Espoo have churned out over the years. But they have never really been seen as arguably more reliable than their competitors, not by tech reviewers, bloggers, or even by their very owners. But that’s OK. Why? Because of my next reason.
Hardware. Nokia are the masters of designing, creating and redefining what a good smartphone should look like, and their designs have been crafted with materials that not only stand the test of time, but actual crazy tests of endurance too! Sure, the iPhone set a new precedent with an all-glass front and very few buttons. Samsung might have learned that simply copying the idea can be expensive. But it was Nokia that took the idea further, deciding to incorporate a hardware qwerty keyboard in the doomed N97, the slightly less doomed N97 mini and the excellent Linux-powered N900. The physical architecture of these and later models proves that Nokia can build one hell of a phone. The first Symbian^3 devices took this even further. The C7 and E7 have often been referred to as Nokia’s best industrial design (at launch), and the N8 has been dropped, thrown and even booted across a soccer field, and still managed to take the best photos on any phone in the world (at the time).
Covering hardware must include their total dominance in photography. If Nokia fell by the wayside, the jeerers soon stopped jeering when the N8 and later the 808 PureView showed up. But even way before then Nokia were proving to the world that a phone can be converged with a great quality camera in their N82, N86 and N95 models. Teaming up with Carl-Zeiss for top-of-the-line optics has certainly proven to be a smart move for the smartphone.
In 2011 they achieved a wonderful combination of superb form factor design plus great camera in the unique N9. Ditching the aged notion that a phone needs to be in two grey metal or plastic halves, the N9 was the first smartphone to be released in a colourful polycarbonate shell, that contained the phone’s guts and screen in seamless glory. Suddenly, smartphones didn’t have to look like smartphones anymore.
What followed was quite simply a natural progression, with Nokia installing Windows Phone as their smartphone operating system of choice in the same polycarbonate shell that they offered in black, cyan, magenta, and then finally white. The following Lumias’ designs were based firmly upon this ‘Fabula’ design language, with Nokia providing for itself somewhat of a brand signature.
There are other reasons to choose Nokia, such as superlative Maps (now called ‘Here’) which offer free, offline navigation and journey routing, as long as you’ve downloaded the country you’re in or travelling to (American users can choose to download entire states if they don’t need the whole of the USA!) Thanks to Nokia’s shrewd acquisition of NavTeq in 2007, they now have what is arguably the best mapping solution on a phone.
But there is yet another and not so obvious reason to enjoy being a Nokia phone owner, and that reason is probably reading this post right now. Other Nokia phone owners. You see, not being a drop in the iOS/Android ocean allows us to connect to each other more, and more easily. We share ideas, opinions, and even apps. There is a common feeling of being the underdog, and with that comes the natural tendency to want to stand your ground and defend the choice you’ve made. We may not like or agree with the recent choices Nokia have made, nor might we agree on the choices they made five or six years ago, but we continue to buy their devices because they are still doing the good things that made us choose them in the first place. Top quality hardware and community spirit continue abound.
Like it or not, smartphones have become very personal items for most people. They become attached to them quickly, and usually stick with a particular brand. Iphone 4S owners maintain the Apple ecosystem link by purchasing the iPhone 5. Samsung Galaxy S II owners upgrade to the S III, and so on. There is a much more tangible connection between people and their smartphones than they’re prepared to admit. It’s not as if people are particularly attached to the Dell brand, for example, they just need a good PC or laptop. The next one could very well be an HP or Asus. Phones have become that thing that we have to help identify who we are; why we stick with a Honda over a Ford for example. Nokia is one of those brands that people choose not because of prestige necessarily, but because they have likely stuck with that brand for many years. And in that time Nokia have shown us the excellence they are capable of (most of the time!) It seems very apparent that they are maintaining this excellence with the new Lumia 920, and I think you’d be hard pushed to disagree with that, whether you’re a Windows Phone fan or not. The device itself is stunning.
The thing about Nokia phones is this: describing your current one as stunning could easily be something you’ve been saying for a long, long time.
And so when I’m asked the question, “Why Nokia?”…that’s why.