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

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New Times: David Runciman on networks and the digital revolution

The digital revolution has had two profound effects on how power is distributed – both of which squeeze the state's power.

Left-wing political parties exist to use the power of the state to rectify unjust distributions of power in society. What has gone wrong with this project? First, the political parties bit. Established parties everywhere are struggling to seem relevant to most people’s everyday concerns: they look increasingly like the tired relics of a more hierarchical age. The exception, of course, is the current Labour Party, which has opened itself up to become the biggest mass-membership party in Europe. But the trade-off has been to move away from seeing the acquisition of power as its primary purpose. These days parties can only really draw people in by offering to be vehicles for the expression of political resentment and disenchantment. But that is no way to rectify the causes of their resentment; neglecting the challenge of power usually ends up making things worse.

However, this is just a symptom of the wider problem, which is the changing nature of power. Technology lies at the heart of it. The digital revolution has had two profound effects on how power is distributed. First, it has empowered individuals, by providing them with unprecedented access to information, tools of communication and the means of expression. This is power exercised as choice: we all now have multiple ways of registering our likes and dislikes that never existed before.

Second, the digital revolution has empowered networks, creating vast new webs that span the globe. Some of them, such as Facebook, are close to being monopolies. We end up joining the networks that other people have joined, because that’s where the action is. This gives a small number of networks an awful lot of power.

Both of these developments are deeply problematic for the power of the state. The proliferation of choice makes citizens much harder to satisfy. Many of us have got used to micromanaging our lives in ways that leaves government looking flat-footed and unresponsive, no matter how hard it tries. At the same time, states face global networks that they have no idea how to control. International finance is one of these: money is information and information now has too many different ways to flow. States are getting squeezed.

The paradox is that the same forces that are squeezing the state are also giving impetus to left-wing politics. There are huge imbalances of power being created in networked societies. The monopolists are hoovering up money and influence. Personal connections count for more than ever, now that networked connections have become ubiquitous. Education is turning into a way of pulling up the drawbridge rather than moving up the ladder. One temptation for the left is to assume that the evidence of injustice will sooner or later outweigh the disabling effects of these social forces on the state. That is part of the Corbyn gamble: hang around until people are sufficiently pissed off to start demanding social-democratic solutions to their problems.

I don’t think this is going to happen. There is nothing to suggest that popular dissatisfaction will find its way back to the state as its best outlet. It will be channelled through the networks that are making the life of the state increasingly difficult.

The other temptation is to think that the left can achieve its goals by bypassing conventional social democracy and channelling its own ambitions into network politics. This is the other side of the Corbyn gamble, or at least the view of some of the people who have attached themselves to him: a new politics is coming that uses digital technology to mobilise fleet-footed networks of activists who can generate change without going through the cumbersome and time-consuming process of winning general elections. That also looks pretty wishful to me. These networks are just another vehicle for expressing personal preferences. They don’t have any means of changing the preferences of people who think differently. You need to win power to do that.

The state’s power is being squeezed by networks of empowered individuals, but these networks don’t have the kind of power necessary to do the redistributive work of the state. What is the left to do? It needs to try to find value in the fact that the state is not just another network. The right does this instinctively, by talking up the state’s security functions and championing ideas of sovereignty and national identity. But that does nothing to address the deleterious effects of living in a modern networked society, where we are swamped by personal choice but impotent in the face of corporate and financial power.

Rather than trying to harness the power of networks, the left should stand up for people against the dehumanising power of Big Data. The state isn’t Google and should not try to pretend to be. We don’t need more choice. We don’t need more efficiency of the kind that digital technology is endlessly supplying. We need protection from the mindless bureaucratic demands of the new machine age: the relentless pursuit of information, regardless of the human cost. There are limits to what the state can do but it retains some real power. It still employs real human beings; it educates them and provides them with welfare. It should do what is in its power to make the work tolerable and the education meaningful, to provide welfare in ways that don’t leave people at the mercy of faceless systems. The left needs to humanise the state.

At the moment, too much energy is being spent trying to humanise the party. We are told that people are tired of robotic, careerist politicians; they want unspun versions of people like themselves. But robotic politicians aren’t the problem; the coming age of robots is. While the party tries to feel more comfortable with itself, the effects of a networked society are running rampant. Acquiring the power of the state is still the best way to fight back. It doesn’t matter if that has to be done in an ugly, mechanised, artificial way, by careerist politicians with whom we wouldn’t choose to spend our personal time. Better an ugly, artificial politics than an ugly, artificial world. 

David Runciman is a professor of politics and the head of the department of politics and international studies at Cambridge

This article is part of a New Times collection of the future of the left. Read the other pieces here.

 

This article first appeared in the 22 September 2016 issue of the New Statesman, The New Times