How the European Union completely lost the battle to make mobile phones

Year 1997. Mobile telephony, which had been around five years of incipient commercial life, was dominated worldwide by an American company (Motorola), a Finnish (Nokia), a Japanese (Sony) and already at a certain distance another Japanese (NEC) and a German as fifth in discord, Siemens. The passage of time was changing the rankingwhich today is made up of a leading South Korean (Samsung), an American (Apple) and three Chinese lurking: Xiaomi, Huawei and Oppo. Zero European.

Japan, which long ago lost the technological supremacy it held in the 1980s and 1990s, has also mercilessly dropped out of the top 5. Sony and NEC suffered different fates although neither returned equally, and other Japanese brands have not managed to rise to global relevance at this time either. Fujitsu/Toshiba, Panasonic, Sharp, Kyocera, NTT DoCoMo. None have come close to what has been achieved by other Asian companies from China, Taiwan or South Korea.

CE wrecks

If the trajectory of a country of 125 million inhabitants is negative, perhaps worse is that of a community of 450 million. The European Union, which had a very strong presence for decades: The Finnish Nokia, which touched market shares of 50%, was shipwrecked as a result of bad decisions and worse acquisitions, and today it survives under the umbrella of HMD Global far from its days of wine and roses.


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SiemensGerman excellence that baptized its phones with a naming scheme like those of Mercedes-Benz and became the aspiration in design, also left a bearish history with operations that turned out badly, such as that of BenQ. Another disappearance.

ericsson also an important role. It first merged with Sony for its mobile business and since 2012, with that union broken, there is no more Ericsson. End of the Swedish presence in the list of manufacturers. Something to the south, in the Netherlands, was Philips, which had the ingredients for success and a certain presence at the beginning of the century, which it did not know how to continue. And so we already went to brands that tried, but did not have that great international presence.

Also among tulips was born Fairphone with the intention of becoming the ethical manufacturer. His good intentions have not been enough to gain a foothold in the industry.

In Spain we have an example of each class. Vitelcom It manufactured telephones from Campanillas (Málaga) and came to mount five million units in its best year. That was before Telefónica, which saved them from certain death due to a lawsuit from Nokia for violating their patents, decided to dispense with the purchase of their terminals. Vitelcom was created almost to the measure of Telefónica, so its death was inevitable.

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As sad end or more than that of Vitelcom, although with a much longer agony, was that of bq and his death in slow motion. The Las Rozas company that once embarrassed global players imploded and the dream of having a successful Spanish manufacturer came to an end. Less lustrous was the history of Geekphonewith some merit but closed since 2015.

There are also brands that seemed like they were going to achieve something more, but no. case of the british To see your, which after manufacturing many obsolete tacky items ended up going bankrupt. Or the also British Kasam, which by its founders, ex-HTC employees at its peak, seemed like it would do something. Either.

double axis

The turning point was, above all, at the moment when the Internet became available on mobile networks. European carriers focused on isolating their customers so that their experience was limited to the private browsing portals they each owned. The Japanese i-mode standard was incorporated by several European operators for this purpose and the little success shown in these environments caused little return on the giant investments in 3G licenses that ended up taking the following investments to other latitudes.

Of course, the fault lies not only with the operators and the owners of the telecommunications networks. Nokia, as the absolute leader, also made several decisions that cost it dearly. Not only rooting itself in Symbian (we will never know if it would have been successful competing using Android), but perhaps also not knowing how to evolve Symbian to what the market demanded. There were also financial moves that went wrong.

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It bought Navteq for €6.5 billion in the year the iPhone was born to offer paid navigation services. Three years later he announced that these services would be free to gain appeal to the public. He thus giving away the intellectual property that had cost him those 6,500 million.

Half-European Sony-Ericsson also achieved notoriety in the mid-1900s, notably with its camera and media player technologies using the Walkman brand. Nor did it know how to evolve its interface to what was beginning to be customary in the era of the iPhone and Android.

After the smartphone came the Smart Watches as the next great phenomenon where perhaps some European could take a piece of the cake. The eyes were on the Swiss watch industry, thinking that perhaps its enormous tradition and knowledge in horology could influence this new market. It wasn’t like that either. Or not enough.

And so we come to the current period. The know how Europe and its innovation, the power that gave the region the adoption of GSM in the eighties, boosting its entire industry, was left behind. Even the operating systems that have triumphed, iOS and Android, both bear the stamp of Made in the USA.

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The European Union lagged behind in 4G, it is completely dependent on others in 5G and the competitive advantage it had in connectivity has also evaporated. The great platforms and technologies of this era (Apple, Meta, Google, Amazon, Microsoft, AliBaba, Tencent, TSMC…) are on both sides of the map. Even companies that remain relevant in telecommunications, such as Nokia and Ericsson, have the handicap of outcompeting cheaper rivals in China and South Korea.

After so many years with no hope, now there is one, small, paradoxically called Nothing, and it is called to occupy the space that OnePlus conquered in 2013: technology enthusiasts who appreciate the benefits of a different proposal. After more than striking headphones, her first phone will debut on July 12. We will see if Carl Pei’s brand manages to revive the European laurels of the mobile industry or if it remains in another laudable attempt unable to compete against Samsung, Apple and the different Chinese that have devastated all the others.

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