Back in 1996 I was part of a small startup – Grey Cell Systems – which against all odds won a contract to write a PC based, GSM data stack for Samsung’s first mobile phone. A few weeks after we got the contract we were invited to a meeting at Samsung’s research centre near London, where the phone was being designed. A senior manager had come over from Korea to tell us Samsung’s vision. I could see all of the listening engineers trying to suppress as grin as his translator told the assembled audience that Samsung’s strategy was to become number one in mobile phones by 2001. At the time Samsung didn’t even have a phone – that would take at least three attempts and several years and none of us in that meeting could believe their optimism. They didn’t reach that goal. They still haven’t, but they’re not far off. And since 2003, they’ve been the only company Nokia has admitted to being scared of.
Samsung have made it to number one in Europe: in the first quarter of this year, shipping 13.2 million units – 600,000 ahead of Nokia. But for the last few years I’ve been tracking a slightly different metric – the combined sales of Samsung and LG, which I’ve called Korea Inc. They’ve been closing the gap and in the latest figures from IDC we can see that they can now claim supremacy, pushing Nokia firmly into second place.
The recent partnership between Nokia and Microsoft has created a lot of comment, with the more upbeat view being that it combines Microsoft’s skill in software with Nokia’s expertise in hardware. That reminded me of the quote from Bernard Shaw to a beautiful actress who suggested they should have a baby so that their child would have her beauty and his brains. “But Madam,” Shaw retorted, “what if the child has my looks and your brains?” We don’t yet know what this union will bear, but there are good reasons for asking whether many phone users have already bought their last Nokia?
The marketing world has always understood that if you want to catch a consumer, catch them young. Tom Lehrer parodied it well with his song “The Old Dope Peddler” who “gave the kids free samples, because he knew full well, that today’s young innocent faces, will be tomorrow’s clientele”. The consumer electronics industry is equally aware of that principle, as I was reminded today when I went past a window exhorting parents to start their children off on a life of electronic materialism with “My First Sony”.
Nokia must wish that they could be that confident. When I upgraded my phone to a Nokia E72 this year I thought harder about that decision than I had for most of my previous upgrades. What finally won me over and stopped me jumping to Android were two features – Ovi Maps and a battery life of four or more days. But I bought it with the realisation that my next phone would probably not be Finnish. With the announcement of the new relationship between Nokia and Microsoft, I wonder whether their marketing departments need to get together and make a final push for short term market share with the slogan “My Last Nokia”?
It’s one of those questions that could enter the public consciousness, like “do you remember where you where when Kennedy was assassinated”, or “when Neil Armstrong took his first step on the moon”? For today’s generation of phone users, they may look back and wonder “where was it that they bought their last Nokia”.