The problem today is being ugly

It was early July 2002 and I was at a party at my girlfriend’s house. It was her birthday and a number of our friends were there for the “Christmas in July” birthday party.

She was turning 19, at the time I was still 18. Young and stupid, but weren’t we all at that age?

Christmas in July in Australia is more like just Christmas for everyone up here in the Northern Hemisphere.

July in Australia, in particular Melbourne, is bloody cold.

Yep, hate to break it to you but Australia isn’t glorious sun and going to the beach every day, all year round. At least not down South. Once winter rolls in for July, it’s single-digit days and low single-digit nights.

No snow, at least not in the city. But still freezing, and often wet. So you can begin to see how acclimatising over here in the UK has been a breeze for me.

Nonetheless, I digress.

The company that was phones

I had been standing outside with some of my mates. It was raining and it was cold, but the outdoor patio heater was in full swing and that’s where the beers were too. I’d only just recently got my hands on a blue Nokia 5210 and was giving it a run through its paces.

Dropping it on the ground, throwing it into a bucket of water catching a drip for the patio roof. Not because I’m a “phone-sadomasochist” but as that’s what it was designed for.

The 5210 was built for “tough conditions”. That meant it was shockproof, dustproof and the best bit, waterproof. It is also the only Nokia to have featured an orange backlight… fancy!

It ran on the GSM network – one of the early “G” networks (the equivalent of 2G), nowhere near today’s hyper-connected 5G networks. Although the 5210 did have WAP as well, which would be found in subsequent generations. Remember WAP? It was the hot thing in phones back in the early 2000s.

WAP wasn’t all that useful in my 5210 because it had a five-line display. That’s right, back then phone displays were measured in lines, not inches.

Snake II was the built-in game, and there was nothing in the way of a camera or “AR” or “VR”, GPS or accelerometers. Simple, smart – another of Nokia’s long line of beautifully designed phones.

This was back in the day when Nokia was phones. And I mean that in a very literal sense.

When you thought of phones, it was Nokia that you wanted. Sure, there were others like Motorola, Ericsson, Sony… but it was Nokia that was the pioneer in phones, just not as you might think.

It was something else that made Nokia stand out and nothing to do what it packed under the hood. Something that I think we’re lacking in a number of technology aspects today. But for the companies that can crack it and make this a core part of their technology, well the world will bow at their feet.

Don’t be so ugly

Nokia was a pioneer not so much in phones but in phone design. It seemed like every other week it was releasing a new design for its phones. Whether it was the “rugged” 5210 or the “lipstick” 7280 or even the “Taco” N-Gage, it pushed the envelope of design.

Nokia didn’t always pull it off, I might add. But sometimes it truly shifted the needles with its phone. Like the 8110. Also known as the “banana phone”, it was gorgeous. And it was so ahead of its time in design, The Matrix featured it in its dystopian high-tech future.

Some of Nokia’s designs were so iconic that they’re being re-released today because it seems that when it comes to smartphones, design is dead.

When Steve Jobs released the iMac it created a snowball that would lead Apple into being one of the biggest design companies in the world.

I said design companies, not tech companies. And for good reason. Have you ever seen an ugly Apple product since the release of the iMac in 1998?

Okay, maybe the Mac Pro… but on the balance of things, all its devices have been beautiful. That’s intentional. Meanwhile, when was the last time you marvelled over the beautiful design of an IBM?

The point is that technology is one thing and on its own it can be hugely powerful and successful. But greatness comes with technology and design beauty.

And that’s where I think a lot of companies and new technologies are destined to fail.

I’ll take John Deere thanks

For example, this morning my colleague and friend Kit Winder sent around a link about a new Chinese piece of engineering. It was the world’s first hydrogen fuel-cell electric 5G smart tractor.

That’s like a tech-editor’s saucy dream!

Except when I looked at this thing, I vommed into my mouth a little. Take a look at this thing for yourself here.

No doubt this is great technology, but as I noted to Kit in a video interview we recorded today, “It’ll never sell any because it’s bloody ugly.”

Meanwhile, a company like John Deere is also pushing forward with new cutting-edge technologies like electric tractors, autonomous sprayers and electric-autonomous tractor-sprayers that will do all that, but packaging it up into something slick and stylish.

Now I don’t profess to be a connoisseur of delightfully designed farming equipment. But when you look at what John Deere is designing for its future (which you can see here) it’s pretty clear to see design has a big part to play in all this.

Making technology easy to use and easy to look at are two aspects of success that companies must factor in to their plans. Those that treat it as an afterthought, get left behind very quickly.

But as we’ve seen with Nokia, you still need to push the envelope with tech too – or you can get left behind that way as well.

What’s interesting though is that the big players in the 90s and 2000s in phones, Nokia and Ericsson, are now two of the world’s leading companies when it comes to 5G technology. And with the “Western world” starting to push back against China’s Huawei 5G tech, it’s Nokia and Ericsson that are now stepping up to the 5G plate and swinging for the fences.

It ran on the GSM network – one of the early “G” networks (the equivalent of 2G), nowhere near today’s hyper-connected 5G networks. Although the 5210 did have WAP as well, which would be found in subsequent generations. Remember WAP? It was the hot thing in phones back in the early 2000s.

It’s a delicate dance between design and development. You must continue to develop the tech but you also must not leave design behind. And vice-versa, you might have the most gorgeous device, but unless it’s easy to use and does what it’s supposed to, you’re set for failure too.

One thing is for sure though – I kind of wish I still had my 5210. Even if just for a bit of design nostalgia.


Sam Volkering
Editor, Exponential Investor

PS If you’ve got any “war stories” about old Nokia phones, or the ones that you loved from back in the day that bring back fond memories, let me know and write in to us at [email protected]

Category: Technology

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