No more Nokia library

Nokia, a corporative giant once known as Finland’s national treasure, is sinking. It turned from a titan into a Titanic in just a few years.

The electronic giant made monstrous mistakes before and during it’s free fall: there were wrong people in the wrong places who made wrong decisions after wrong interpretations of the astrolo-gical signs of the markets.

Nokia back to the roots – the boots

As a matter of fact, if the free fall con-tinues, Nokia could soon be doing bet-ter if it withdrew back to where it star-ted, the rubberboot business, instead of trying to imitate what Apple is doing so much better. Imagine the brave new boots with the label Microsoft – Intel inside!

The story of Nokia is also a story of the Finnish information society. Both Nokia and Finland were the benchmarkers of the business just as long as the whole project of the information so-ciety was about technology. That is, the nineties.

Back then, Nokia was the rainmaker of Finland – a country that was recovering from one of the deepest repressions in the western world since World War two, and, at the same time, searching for it’s newly discovered western identity after the collapse of the Soviet Union. Nokia was the answer.

Blinded by success

After the first – and huge – success on the mobile markets, both Nokia and Finland got haunted by the joys of the technology. The Finnish school system was trimmed to mass produce skilled engineers. Emphasis was put on the maths and physics from the daycare onwards. More technology, better technology. Various public organisations were eagerly financing anything related to production of devices. You know, small objects that would knock when dropped to the kitchen table.

Nokia was “connecting people”, as the company slogan suggested (and dis-connecting families, as the overloaded employees would add), but at the same time no one was quite figuring out what these newly connected people should be sharing with one another, by means of the new wireless technology with seemingly limitless possibilities.

The technology blocks of the suburban Helsinki were widely celebrated as forerunners of the modern world, and they were repeatedly compared to Silicon valley of California. Manuel Castells, perhaps the leading social theoretician of the age of the networks, chose Helsinki as his model of the socially sustainable information society number one.

Signs of warning

Yet at the same time, no one was really paying attention to the contents of these newly manufactured devices. At Nokia it was thought, that the com-pany would be one step ahead of its competitors and would stay so, as long as there were even more engineers, and even less paid Chinese workers with tinier and tinier fingers to put these small Finnish-designed wonders together.

This is where it all went wrong. During the second mobile decade, other phone companies started trembling, and then falling. Motorola crashed, and Ericson was in ruins. In Finland we still thought, that this was a result of the superiority of our own Nokia. And that’s what they thought at Nokia as well.

Maybe it was. Nokia had beaten its mobile phone producing siblings. To everybody’s great surprise, the company’s executors came from an entirely other direction: Google, traditionally known from it’s search engine with no production of devices whatsoever, and Apple, a fancy computer company focusing on usability of the equipment instead of providing another business solution for its highly advanced users, mastering the Finnish cells in all their complexity.

Apple, just a Californian fruit company

On the corridors of the Nokia head-quarters, the Apple was dismissed as a Californian fruit company, with a not-to-be-taken-seriously-sticker on it. That was just three years ago, well after the publication of the first iPhone. The alarm bells should have been ringing a decade earlier, ever since the publication of the first iPod in 2001.

To learn a lesson from the rise and fall of Nokia, we have to pay attention to the strengths of the winners instead of the weaknesses of the looser.

Android based phones are gaining success by combining smart technology with low price. The strategy works par-ticularily well in China.

A bigger problem for Nokia is the Californian fruit company, who stole the benchmarker position that Nokia held for more than a decade. Now everybody is waiting for Apple to make a move, then the others follow. And the crucial thing is not the technology. Apple is a highly developed ecosystem, which can be accessed via iProducts, whatever they are. The world of applications, personal collections of music, games, pictures, ebooks and other forms of entertainment cannot be smuggled from the iWorld into the Microsoft or Android platforms. The longer you use Apple, the more you are stuck with it.

Apple’s ecosystem is the core, and the devices are the means through which one can get there. Nokia has no answer to that, and, consequently, there is no commitment or dedication on behalf of Nokia’s customers. Quite the con-trary: the Nokia designers are thinking that they must have a hard object in their hands, and that’s it.

Lessons for libraries

And what does this development have to do with libraries? Everything, I would say.

Libraries can be developed according to two different models. The Nokia solution would be to focus on the equipment, devices, forms, shapes and such: to celebrate the new technology, that is undeniably enabling new paths to follow, but are not defining where they take us.

The successful course of action, on the other hand, would be to focus on the core of the information business: the whole thing is about organizing people around the contents, to enable them to express themselves, to receive new ideas and to share them with friends and strangers.

That sounds like a modern library to me.


Writer, educator, politician, broadcast media specialist, President of the Finnish Library Association