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How the mobile phone biz lost the plot

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Opinion Nokia's recent announcement heralding the arrival of "widgets" is further proof that the entire mobile industry is a rudderless ship furiously innovating in circles.

Having lost sight of consumer sentiment years ago, all sectors of the industry seem to be clamouring to give every crackpot idea a chance in a desperate attempt to differentiate themselves from the competition.

Nokia used to set the benchmark for everyone else, being renowned for its simple and snappy user interfaces, exceptional reliability, great battery life, and fantastic call quality.

Unsurprising to everyone else, is that these qualities are still paramount to the average consumer. That a company that got so many things right is now trying to distinguish itself with "widgets" is a telling depiction of how the mighty have fallen.

A little retrospective to the days of focused innovation may help highlight the dullness of today's "all cherry, no ice cream" offerings. Consider the Nokia 3210, probably the most successful phone of all time, and for good reason.

The 3210 is the Model T Ford of mobile phones. By 2000, the phone was cheap enough that almost anyone could afford it. Yet despite its affordability, it was packed with features not yet seen in the mass market; most of them market firsts. Among other things, it introduced internal aerials, T9 predictive text input, downloadable ringtones, downloadable operator logos and a user interface as easy to use as a doorbell.

The ubiquity of the phone combined with its downloadable ringtones, operator logos, and changeable XPressOn covers gave birth to the billion dollar "Blingtone" industry, while the sheer number of "Snake"-related thumb injuries more than proved the viability of a mobile gaming industry. While exact figures are hard to come by, it seems unlikely that any other phone to date has had a higher market share or a bigger impact.

That Nokia still has the market share that it does today can only be explained by dark art of "brand psychology". The N-series must surely take the cake as the world's most ill-conceived range of phones, being slower than treacle, as reliable as Windows 3.1 and clearly designed by a committee of unloved marketing droids.

There is literally no one in this cursed industry that hasn't joined the frantic race to the bottom. Time and again, the industry has shown it is willing to sacrifice essential features on the altar of progress, fluff, and bling.

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