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Six things Nokia did to make the modern cell phone

Tue, 04/10/2012 - 1:56pm
CNET

It's been a while since we've been able to say this, but Nokia is wrapping up a very good week.

On Sunday, the company's flagship Windows Phone 7 device, the Lumia 900, finally arrived in stores. Praise from early critics, including CNET's Jessica Dolcourt, is high. So at this early stage, it appears that AT&T and Nokia managed to deliver on the early hype they generated last January at CES.

Of course, we'll have to wait to see how many handsets the company actually sells. It's entering a crowded and fiercely competitive marketplace and it's no secret that Nokia and Microsoft have a lot riding on the Lumia 900's success. For Microsoft, it's a chance to push Windows Phone 7 into the big leagues while for Nokia, it's an opportunity to get its real groove back.

Some younger readers may not remember, but Nokia spent quite a few years essentially dictating which cell phones the planet would buy. It was a time before Android and the iPhone, before the thin phone revolution, and before Samsung set out on world domination. But it was a time when innovation flowed out of Finland as quickly as Paavo Nurmi crossing the finish line. And if that's news to you, here are six things that Nokia did to make the cell phone what it is today.

Nokia: A long and innovative history (photos)

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The 1011

It wasn't one of the company's biggest handset hits--in fact, I don't blame you if you've never heard of it--but the Nokia 1011 has earned its place in cell phone history. Its fame, however, isn't due to how it looked or even what it did.

First introduced on November 10, 1992 (hence the "1011" model number), the 1011 could pass for a cheap cordless phone if it was in stores now. It had a monochrome display that showed only two lines of text, it had nickel-cadmium battery that delivered just 90 minutes of talk time, and it did nothing besides make calls and send texts.

"So, what's the big deal?," you're asking. Well, though the 1011 wasn't the first commercially available cell phone (that honor belongs to the Motorola Dynatac 8000x), it was the was the first mass-produced GSM handset. GSM, which now stands for Global System for Mobile communications, remains the most widespread cell phone technology in the world and lives here in the United States with AT&T and T-Mobile. Eventually, 4G will replace GSM, just as GSM replaced AMPS, but the technology made it possible to make a call almost anywhere on the planet. The 1011 went on to live in Europe before Nokia replaced it in 1994 with the 2110. You'll hear more on that phone later.

The Nokia 5110: Resting in a drawer near you.

Handsets that everyone had

If you owned a cell phone at any point over the last 15 years, there's a very good chance that you had at least one Nokia. And if had a Nokia around 2000, I'd wager it was the 5110. Big, sturdy, and available with a rainbow of changeable faceplates, the 5110 didn't offer much by current standards, but it did its job and did it very well. It was the first cell phone I ever owned and I'm certain it would still function flawlessly today 14 years after its birth.

Other Nokia handsets that reached near ubiquitous status were the 8210, the 3210, and the 3310. Each of these models continued the evolution curve by offering new features while morphing into sleek designs that wouldn't look too out of place today. Yet, it was their cheap price tags, reliable performance, and extreme ease of use that made them huge hits around the world. Other handsets have sold well (hello, iPhone), but it devices like these that took the cell phone out of Gordon Gecko's hands and put it in the hands of millions. The 1100 from 2003 is another example; it remains the best selling phone in history.

Nokia 7280

The infamous lipstick phone.

(Credit: CNET)

Dare to design

Sure, Nokia's initial designs were pretty dull, but it wasn't long before the company got more creative. Consider, for example, the 8110. Debuting in 1998, it pioneered the slider phone design and starred in the first Matrix film (one of many Nokia phones to make it big in Hollywood). More sliders came including the all-metal 8800 and the camera-equipped 7650. By and large, though, most of the company's phones have been candy bar designs. It dabbled in flip phones like the ultra-affordable 2650 and "fashionable" 7390 and made just two swivel phones that I can remember with the 7370 and 7705 Twist.

On the other hand, Nokia wasn't afraid to break out of the box. Sometimes it was a tittle too quirky for its own good, but even when pushing the envelope the company was nudging the industry forward. It introduced square phones, models with QWERTY keyboards, handsets with circular and swirled keypads, a twisting phone, transparent models with paper faceplates that you could design, and some of the first rugged phones that existed outside of Nextel's stable. Yet, the strangest designs were the 7280 and 7380 "lipstick" phones that were the showpieces of the company's Fashion line. Though they would drive today's texter insane, they delivered respectable features and great call quality. No doubt, though, that their alternative designs scared most users away; I only saw one 7280 in the wild.

Nokia 7650

The 7650 was the first Nokia camera phone.

(Credit: Nokia)

Work and play

Nokia was early with features that we couldn't do without today. The 3310 had voice dialing, the 7110 was the first with a WAP browser, the 5510 introduced a music the 6310 brought Bluetooth, and the 7650 was the first Nokia camera phone. Sure, they still made calls, but phones started to do a whole lot more.

Nokia also was influential in developing the cell phone as a gaming device. Remember the simple, but very addicting game Snake? Though that game had existed in arcades since the 1970s, it won a massive audience when Nokia decided to make it a standard issue feature. It first appeared in 1999 on the 3210 and continued to evolve into a full-color game with actual graphics. Other gaming endeavors like the N-Gage weren't quite as successful, but Nokia made its gaming mark just the same.

On a similar note (bad pun time!), Nokia's signature ringtone also helped popularize the idea of a polyphonic melody as a call alert. Lifted from a 1902 Spanish guitar composition by Francisco Tarrega, the tune first appeared on the aforementioned 2110 and has been on every Nokia since including the Lumia 900. if you hear it, odds are that you'll recognize it. This violist did.

Nokia N95

The Nokia N95: a real smartphone feat.

(Credit: CNET)

Smarter smartphones

Basic phones were been Nokia's bread and butter over the past decade, but it didn't shy away from smartphones. With the Symbain partnership it was one of the first manufacturers to use a third-party operating system and it introduced some powerful and well-designed smartphones with its E-series and N-series handsets. The crowing achievement no doubt was the Nokia N95. Even today, it's a multimedia machine.

The trouble was that as great as these handsets were, they didn't become global sensations. Though some went on to enjoy success abroad, the lack of carrier support in the United States made the prohibitively expensive at $779 unlocked. Ever worse, three months after we reviewed the N95 in April, 2007, a certain handset from Apple came along and changed the smartphone game for good. And when Google's Android entered the scene a year later, Nokia and Symbian couldn't keep despite their devoted followers and the occasional notable handset. Out of that funk, the partnership with Microsoft was born.

Nokia 808 PureView

The Nokia 808 PureView: A megapixel monster

(Credit: Kent German/CNET)

What's next?

Though the post-iPhone era hasn't been kind to Nokia in developed markets, the company remains a powerful force in the mobile world. It basic phones lineup still rules emerging markets and it continues to beat most of its rivals in the number of total handsets shipped worldwide.

The Lumia line could make it a real smartphone player and at Mobile World Congress last February Nokia showed it can get its edgy vibe back. The 41-megapixel 808 PureView won't come to a U.S. carrier (sad trombone), but it has the most powerful shooter ever on a cell phone. Likewise, the N9 is a beauty of a smartphone running on Meego.

As I said, we don't yet know how successful Nokia's latest moves will be. Judging on specs and beauty alone, though, I'd say things are looking up. After all, it has quite the innovative history behind it.

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