The WSJ on the fall of Nokia

The company that foresaw an iPhone-like device in 2000 is left in the dust

The Wall Street Journal has an excellent page-one story on the fall of Finnish cellphone giant Nokia—the kind of deeply reported classic WSJ corporate leder we just don’t see much anymore.

It went and put a weak lede on top, alas. Ignore that paragraph and start with the second one:

More than seven years before Apple Inc. rolled out the iPhone, the Nokia team showed a phone with a color touch screen set above a single button. The device was shown locating a restaurant, playing a racing game and ordering lipstick. In the late 1990s, Nokia secretly developed another alluring product: a tablet computer with a wireless connection and touch screen—all features today of the hot-selling Apple iPad.

“Oh my God,” Mr. Nuovo says as he clicks through his old slides. “We had it completely nailed.”

Consumers never saw either device. The gadgets were casualties of a corporate culture that lavished funds on research but squandered opportunities to bring the innovations it produced to market.

This is the flipside of the exponential rise of Apple. I had forgotten just how giant Nokia was at one point. The company that markets valued at more than $300 billion in 2000 has shed 98 percent of its value and is worth just $7 billion today. Apple, meantime, has gained about $550 billion in market value—most of it due to the iPhone.

So how did the once-dominant company fall apart despite seeing the future well in advance, and how do you tell that story in a couple thousand words?

The Journal shows Nokia’s plodding bureaucratic culture with an anecdote about a hundred engineers meeting to hash out a software standard and another about its competing operating systems, and it gets Qualcomm’s CEO to talk about how Nokia studied new opportunities to death rather than acting on them.

It reports that investors pressured management to shift its focus toward short-term profits over long-term investment in future products—a problem that seems to be endemic in shareholder capitalism.

That investor myopia resulted in executive and structural changes that empowered Nokia’s dumb-phone business, which still brought in the bulk of its money, over its smartphone future. That was a crippling miscalculation for a company in the fast-growing technology industry.

Despite having essentially predicted the iPhone, Nokia got caught looking when Apple actually launched the thing seven years later.

Nokia engineers’ “tear-down” reports, according to people who saw them, emphasized that the iPhone was expensive to manufacture and only worked on second-generation networks—primitive compared with Nokia’s 3G technology. One report noted that the iPhone didn’t come close to passing Nokia’s rigorous “drop test,” in which a phone is dropped five feet onto concrete from a variety of angles.


Five years later, Nokia bleeds red ink and just about all of its remaining market value is in its portfolio of patents, meaning its operations are all but worthless.

Great work by the Journal in showing us how it happened.

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Ryan Chittum is a former Wall Street Journal reporter, and deputy editor of The Audit, CJR's business section. If you see notable business journalism, give him a heads-up at Follow him on Twitter at @ryanchittum. Tags: , , , ,