What If Steve Jobs Ran Nokia?


Once upon a time, there was a company that made phones.

They made smartphones phones with great design relative to their times. They had great cameras, an OS that many considered smart and friendly, and every time they put out a high-end phone it was the talk of the streets. Unfortunately, this company dropped the ball. People might say they gave up on their tech, but in reality, they did do good hardware. They simply gave up on the one thing that really matters: innovation.

Eventually they ended up being sold to Microsoft. Yes, it’s Nokia. Which, incidentally, is dead as a phone brand – Microsoft’s dropping the name.


Have you heard of a man named Frank Nuovo? No? If not, you should read up on him. He was the iconic industrial designer behind some of Nokia’s best devices, and when the New York Times interviewed HIM IN 1999, one in three Nokia phones that were selling at the time were his designs. When he left in 2006, Nokia was still the king.

According to him, Nokia failed precisely because its leadership in the smartphone market threw their management into quandary of sorts: they already had a massive userbase of people who like what they were doing. The question was, do they continue to pander to that audience, or do they go for broke and innovate? Nokia chose to play it safe, choosing to maintain its existing image instead of doing something new. It was about complacency. Apple, in contrast, were perfectly poised to take advantage of this – they had nothing to lose – and they did. RIP Nokia.

Now, years later, this story draws remarkable parallels and it’s problems. There have always been detractors blaming Apple for not innovating, but it’s only with the iPhone 6 that the problem has really come to light. It’s a device that shows how real the struggle is: not only has Apple gone against most of what it’s been preaching in the past, it’s also playing the catch-up game. Despite the recent fanboy mantra of “Apple isn’t about innovating first, it’s about innovating best”, Apple is an innovator, and like Nokia in the past, their userbase of already satisfied customers are bogging it down. It’s inevitable.

Unlike Nokia, though, Apple knows just how powerful marketing is, so it’s still in the game. “The Apple Marketing Philosophy”, written by Mike Markkula in 1977, lists three things – I’ve typed it here word-for-word:

1) Empathy
We will truly understand their needs better than any other company.
2) Focus
In order to do a good job of those things we decide to do we must eliminate all unimportant opportunities.
3) Impute 
People DO judge a book by it’s cover. We may have the best product, the highest quality, the most useful software etc; if we present them in a slipshod manner, they will be perceived as slipshod; if we present them in a creative, professional manner, we will impute the desired

This philosophy is the heart of every product reveal, every video they make, every product page they put up. It works. We’ve seen this time and time again – even when they’re copying features from Android, they pair it beautiful, sometimes fantastically arrogant marketing. It works.

They could sell anything with that marketing.
They could sell anything with that marketing.
Now imagine Nokia, and imagine Steve Jobs running Nokia.

Nokia’s problem wasn’t that they made bad hardware – they made great, marketable hardware. To this date, phones like the N95, even the failed N900, can take on most modern smartphones in build quality, multimedia and basic utility. Their crime was to stick with the aging Symbian 60 platform and flog that dead horse for all that it was worth. It was a brilliant system to start with, and the fact that the interface stayed largely the same did wonders for the adaptability and user-friendliness of Nokia smartphones. Nevertheless, that same fact worked against them in the end, as newer platforms – especially Android – rolled them into the gutter.

By the time they realized this, it was too late. Unfortunately, by that time, Chinese smartphone manufacturers had started chipping away at that lower end as well. That’s a fixable problem. It’s something Apple could have pushed.

Set your imagination to work. Imagine Steve Jobs being handed Nokia in 2006, when they were still number one and Nokia CEO Jorma Ollila was stepping out. It’s an interesting scenario, because Nokia was everything Apple is not. They didn’t have a premium minority share in the smartphone market: they had blanket coverage of practically every niche and had around a 40% share of mobile phone sales worldwide.  They didn’t have a controlled app ecosystem. They had the numbers.

The first (and the most Apple-esque) change that he would have done (I think) would have been to trim away the fat away. Nokia’s had a practically legendary number of lower-end models, many of them the same. Most would have ended up in the gutter. Job is famous for having cut down Apple’s once-massive product lineup. We’d probably have ended up with about two models: a re-imagined 1100 and a redesigned 5800 packing in all the works. 

The next thing? The death – or the re-imagining of Symbian. Symbian has many flaws which make a case for shooting it in the head and starting afresh. For starters, Symbian began in an era when PDAs were the trend, and it was never suited for the fluid, media-heavy era of touch. By the time 2006 came around, Symbian was fragmented, the technology stack was ancient, the app ecosystem was all over the place – read: nonexistent, and the UI needed phenomenal amounts of work to make it competitive. Even worse, it was, according to Lee Williams (former executive director of the Symbian Foundation) too beholden to too many partners. Because of all the multi-device, multi-partner stuff they had going on, Symbian was literally a dinosaur clanking under its own weight.


So yes, Symbian Anna would never have happened. 

Vertu would probably have remained unsold.

Few people know this, but once upon a time Nokia built a luxury mobile manufacturer called Vertu in 1998. Forget iPhone definitions of luxury – Vertu devices have sold for as much as $300,000. They were handmade in England and practically the very definition of luxury. Their flagship was called the Signature and the keypad alone had 5 carats of ruby bearings. By the time they were sold off (in 2012), they were also profitable. Vertu’s a curious case, because despite Apple marketing itself to a high-value audience, it never reached the dizzying heights of Vertu. This highest of the high end would probably have remained.

Blackberry would still have hit the gutter. As would have HTC and Motorola.

Kallasvuo and Elop would never happened. Olli-Pekka Kallasvuo, who suceeded Jorma Ollila as CEO, failed. He was widely criticized for not having jumped into the smartphone game, and indeed, under his tenure, Nokia lost more ground than could have been believed. Despite making his millions, he led the company into a rut and was fired in 2010. Neither would Stephen Elop have happened: this is the foreigner who joined Nokia from Microsoft, lost the company billions, and sold the company to Microsoft.

Android would still be here. It’s safe to say than Android succeeded because a) it was good and b) because Apple focused on a very small slice of the market. Given that the rise of low-cost manufacturing in China is inevitable, and also given the high probability that Steve Jobs would probably never have licensed the platform to anyone, there still would have been plenty of space for Google’s free-license model to take the world by storm.

And last, but not least, Nokia would have made a tab. 


  1. A really nice article starting with a good intro. Progress with a good flow and ending with a nice final touch.
    Well Done..!!


Please enter your comment!
Please enter your name here