What Nokia should do next

Rather than mimicking Apple or Samsung smartphones in North America and Europe, Nokia should look through its archives - and to its success in Africa - for inspiration.

In the end, I decommissioned my £10 Nokia 1100 out of vanity three years ago. It had survived countless mishaps, including one memorable death-defying dive into a cup of hot tea. Unlike my iPhone, its battery could trundle along for at least a week and no app could be more useful than its built-in torch during a power cut.
 
After Microsoft announced its purchase of Nokia’s mobile phone business for £4.7bn on 3 September, analysts made much of the Finnish firm’s struggles to compete with Samsung and Apple in the smartphone market. But what if, rather than focusing on its weaknesses, the phone giant had the confidence to play to its strengths? Nokia is still the market leader in emerging economies, especially across Africa. The Nokia 1100 was one of the world’s bestselling phones, with a quarter of a billion sold globally, and these cheap, reliable handsets continue to transform the way some of the world’s poorest people live and work.
 
There are now more mobile phone users in Africa than in North America or Europe, the World Bank reported in 2012, but unlike in developed economies there’s still plenty of room for growth. World Bank figures also show that market saturation varies from 28, 38 and 48 mobile phone subscribers per 1,000 people in Eritrea, the Central African Republic and Ethiopia, respectively, to 1,049.2 per 1,000 in the Seychelles. Phone-makers may have to expect low margins when selling to some of the poorest, but there is money to be made in low-cost, highvolume goods.
 
Nokia’s sturdy feature phones don’t attract the same hype as the latest Apple product but African consumers make considerable sacrifices for their mobile phones. According to research conducted by iHub, a Nairobi-based tech community, phone users in Kenya are willing to forgo meals, or walk home instead of taking the bus, to save for phone credit. Phones such as the Nokia 1100 are comparatively low-tech but across emerging economies they have proved arguably more valuable, and certainly more transformative, than any other modern tech gadget.
 
For millions of Africans without bank accounts, mobile money transfer companies such as Kenya’s M-Pesa are overhauling the way many do business and are plugging gaps in the continent’s weak financial infrastructure. The research firm Gartner predicts that mobile payments will rise to $235.4bn by 2013 – and even my old Nokia can be used to transfer funds. Volatile currencies, repressive financial regulation and low bank penetration have led to mobile phone minutes being used as currency in African countries as diverse as Egypt, Nigeria and Zimbabwe.
 
Mobile phones are being used in all sorts of innovative ways, whether by offering crop insurance to Kenyan farmers via M-Pesa, or linking health workers in rural Mali to health-care experts to assist in proper diagnosis.
 
Even in Africa, demand for the Nokia 1100 won’t last. The company’s sales across the continent are declining. Nokia’s challenge now is to use its market clout to lead the way in low-cost smartphones designed for the African market, and its competitors aren’t just Apple and Samsung, but home-grown African companies such as Mi-Fone, headquartered in Mauritius.
 
Perhaps, rather than mimicking Apple or Samsung smartphones, Nokia should look through its archives for inspiration – a long battery life and sturdy design will be essential to a bestselling, lowcost smartphone, and a built-in torch would be wonderful.
Relics from another age: discarded Nokia mobile phones. Image: Getty

Sophie McBain is a freelance writer based in Cairo. She was previously an assistant editor at the New Statesman.

This article first appeared in the 16 September 2013 issue of the New Statesman, Syria: The deadly stalemate

Photo: Getty
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Move objects with your mind – telekinesis is coming to a human brain near you

If a user puts on the Neurable headset, they can move virtual objects with their thoughts. 

On 30 July, a blog post on Medium by Michael Thompson, the vice-president of Boston-based start-up Neurable, said his company had perfected a kind of technology which would be “redrawing the boundaries of human experience”. 

Neurable had just fulfilled the pipe dreams of science fiction enthusiasts and video game fanboys, according to Thompson – it had created a telekinetic EEG strap. In plain English, if a user puts on the Neurable headset, and plays a specially-designed virtual reality video game, they can move virtual objects with their thoughts. 

Madrid-based gaming company eStudioFuture collaborated with Neurable to create the game, Awakening. In it, the user breaks out of a government lab, battles robots and interacts with objects around them, all hands-free with Neurable's headset. Awakening debuted at SIGGRAPH, a computer graphics conference in Boston, where it was well received by consumers and investors alike.

The strap (or peripheral, as it’s referred to) works by modifying the industry standard headset of oversized goggles. Neurable's addition has a comb-like structure that reaches past your hair to make contact with the scalp, then detects brain activity via electroencephalogram (EEG) sensors. These detect specific kinds of neural signals. Thanks to a combination of machine-learning software and eye-tracking technology, all the user of the headset has to do is think the word “grab”, and that object will move – for example, throwing a box at the robot trying to stop you from breaking out of a government lab. 

The current conversation around virtual reality, and technologies like it, lurches between optimism and cynicism. Critics have highlighted the narrow range of uses that the current technology is aimed at (think fun facial filters on Snapchat). But after the debut of virtual reality headsets Oculus Rift and HTC Vive at 2016’s Game Developers conference, entrepreneurs are increasingly taking notice of virtual reality's potential to make everyday life more convenient.

Tech giants such as Microsoft, Facebook and Google have all been in on the game since as far back as 2014, when Facebook bought Oculus (of Oculus Rift). Then, in 2016, Nintendo and Niantic (an off-shoot from Google) launched Pokémon Go. One of Microsoft’s leading technical fellows, Alex Kipman, told Polygon that distinctions between virtual reality, augmented reality and mixed reality were arbitrary: "At the end of the day, it’s all on a continuum." 

Oculus’s Jason Rubin has emphasised the potential that VR has to make human life that much more interesting or efficient. Say that you're undergoing a home renovation – potentially, with VR technology, you could pop on your headset and see a hologram of your living room. You could move your virtual furniture around with minimal effort, and then do exactly the same in reality – in half the time and effort. IKEA already offers a similar service in store – imagine being able to do it yourself.

Any kind of experience that is in part virtual reality – from video games to online tours of holiday destinations to interactive displays at museums – will become much more immersive.

Microsoft’s Hololens is already being trialled at University College London Hospital, where students can study detailed holograms of organs, and patients can get an in-depth look at their insides projected in front of them (Hololens won’t be commercially available for a while.) Neurable's ambitions go beyond video games – its headset was designed by neuroscientists who had spent years working in neurotechnology. It offers the potential for important scientific and technological breakthroughs in areas such as prosthetic limbs. 

Whether it was a childhood obsession with Star Wars or out of sheer laziness, as a society, we remain fascinated by the thought of being able to move objects with our minds. But in actual realityVR and similar technologies bring with them a set of prickly questions.

Will students at well-funded schools be able to get a more in-depth look at topography in a geography lesson through VR headsets than their counterparts elsewhere? Would companies be able to maintain a grip on what people do in virtual reality, or would people eventually start to make their own (there are already plenty of DIY tutorials on the internet)? Will governments be able to regulate and monitor the use of insidious technology like augmented reality or mixed reality, and make sure that it doesn't become potentially harmful to minors or infringe on privacy rights? 

Worldwide spending on items such as virtual reality headsets and games is forecast to double every year until 2021, according to recent figures. Industry experts and innovators tend to agree that it remains extremely unlikely you’ll walk into someone examining a hologram on the street. All the same, VR technology like Neurable’s is slowly creeping into the fabric of our lived environment.