Quick! Think of...
Nope, it's not what you think
-- this is the story
, the Nokia
that never was.
Benefon likes to trace its history back to the 1928 Nordell & Koskinen
radio factory, but this entity (rebranded Salora)was soon swallowed
up by Nokia (a rubber and plastics conglomerate at the time).
However, Salora got into building ARP phones in the 1970s and,
in the 1980s, it was time for GSM's predecessor NMT. This was
when Jorma Nieminen and two buddies made the first of many bad
decisions -- not liking the way Nokia was shaping up, they decided
start their own company, namely Benefon.
(At the time, Jorma was the head of Nokia's
mobile phones department, and he would doubtless be a multimillionaire
now had he stayed on.)
After two years of development Benefon launched its Benefon Forte
phone for the NMT450 network, and it proved to be Benefon's
first (and last) hit. Overengineered to withstand anything and equipped
with a powerful antenna and transmitter, the phone found a niche
operating on the edges of networks and remained heavily used in
shipping to this day, since higher-frequency GSM coverage does not
extend out to the sea. The phone was manufactured for no less than
eleven years until 2000, probably a record.
Alas, it was all downhill from there. While its NMT phones like
the Max and its modern-day
successors Dragon and Exion continue
to fill their small niche (esp. in Russia and the Ukraine, where NMT
remains popular), Benefon had serious trouble expanding beyond it.
In 1996 Benefon introduced the Alfa, Beta and Delta NMT900 phones
for the ordinary consumer, but Nokia was already well on its way to world
domination with classic GSM phones like the Nokia 1610. Benefon's
first GSM phone, the 1997 Benefon Gamma, was horribly buggy and
unintuitive, and despite a frenzy of new models Benefon's occasional
technical innovations, like being
the first to adopt T9 shortcuts in the Benefon iO, never succeeded
in outweighing the clunky styling, poor usability and high price tag.
As the millennium drew to a close Benefon started to approach bankruptcy,
so they finally realized that their 400 employees
could not hope to compete against the likes of Nokia and Sony.
Instead, Benefon set out to conquer a niche --
location services. The 1999 Benefon Esc was the world's first
"instrument" (Benefon's term, not mine)
to marry a GPS receiver with a GSM phone,
a theme they have explored in many phones afterward. Benefon
allied itself with Finnish orienteering and dive computer
manufacturer Suunto to produce the Suunto NaviCom aka
Benefon Esc!, a phone that can download maps and show your position
in realtime on its huge LCD display, but after a loud public spat in 2000
the two broke off and the Esc! finally limped into stores over a year late.
It's still a neat idea, but the fearsome price tag of nearly $1000 is just
too much for most people.
As of March 2002, Benefon is once again veering on the edge of
bankruptcy. Their WAP phone Benefon Q has (for once) gotten praise
for its sleek styling and ability to read POP3 mailboxes off the net,
but evidently sales for the Q or the GSM models still haven't been
sufficient and the future of the self-proclaimed "world's smallest
mobile phone manufacturer" remains highly doubtful.