Finland is now known as a modern, Western country. However, as recently as the end of WWII that was far from the case. Yet in the last 70 years it’s been transformed from an agrarian society to one of Europe’s most technologically advanced nations. All this despite a problematic location between east and west and a harsh climate that literally caused famine after famine just a century earlier.
How has the country achieved this economic miracle? Simple. It’s invested in educating the masses with free universities and other egalitarian educational policies. One impressive consequence of this is the number of technologies Finns have created. In fact, according to the Finnish Invention Foundation, the Finnish population of six million people make around 15.000 inventions every year. Many fall by the wayside, some change the world. Let’s take a look at the latter.
1. The universal mobile phone
Launched in 2003, forever ago in tech years, the Nokia 1100 is a simple GSM phone that doesn’t do much else than call and text. But that’s just what the world needed at that point. As Foreign Policy magazine put it: Nokia 1100 is “humanity’s most rugged, efficient calling machine.” Designed to function in the harsh conditions for electronics in developing nations, the 1100’s build quality allowed the handset to work for as a relatively long time for very little money. It was indeed the world’s best selling mobile phone and ended up the hands of an amazing 250 million people worldwide. This is really the beginning of the success story of telecommunications in countries we westerners sometimes underestimate by a lot, based on ancient information in our school books.
2. Polar’s Wireless Wearable Technology
Finnish company Polar Electro started their journey towards greatness in 1977 as they filed a patent for and launched a battery-powered heart rate monitor intended for use attached to the wearer’s fingertip. However, the first major step towards a form that feels eerily familiar came in 1982 with the wireless heart rate monitor, the sensor of which attached to the user’s chest while communicating to a wrist watch like a central unit.
Subsequent models improved in affordability, already aiming for enthusiasts by the mid-80’s. Around the same time, Polar started making moves in what essentially is the functions we expect from health gadgets now: data analysis software for the IBM PC. By the 90’s their software was useful for plotting training schedules quickly.
3. SSH, the universal tool for secure computer administration
Let’s make a quick jump to another type of technology entirely: the early days of the commercial internet. Back then, nearly all communications between computers happened in clear text, without encryption. That seemed to work during the hippy-dippy days of the internet as a research network. But in 1995, software engineer Tatu Ylönen made a big splash that’s invisible to most laypeople: the SSH (secure shell) protocol and his company with the same name.
Mostly used as a replacement for ‘telnet’, a remote command line, SSH is super convenient for logging in to remotely use and securely administer computers. SSH is also the basis for the world’s best hope of getting rid of the insecure FTP for transferring files to be served on the web.
4. Linux, everywhere but your PC
In 1992 Linus Torvalds, an ambitious computer science student from Helsinki wanted to make an operating system of his own for his new PC. Inspired by Unix, a family of operating systems derived from big institutional computers in the 70’s, Torvalds made the Linux kernel available to anyone at no cost. Over a short time, countless people wanted to give feedback and contributed enhancements to the systems source code.
Many took the Linux kernel and bundled it with freely available Unix-components from the GNU project to make complete environments, like Windows or the Mac.
The source for Linux code ended up being licensed in a way that requires source code changes to be publicly available. So, Linux became the poster child for open source or freely available software and to this day, bundled as distributions, like Ubuntu or Fedora.
Concerning Torvald’s original ambition of building an enthusiast OS, Linux has indeed succeeded with a notable following among computer professionals, enthusiasts and price/control sensitive governments. On the same note, Linux is sometimes considered weird and obscure because it never came close to “replacing Windows” on things we call “computers”: typical workhorse PCs and laptops.
However, Linux matured for professional IT use in the late nineties when the internet took off. Being free and customizable Linux allows countless Internet-minded organizations to save on software license fees. Being built around the Unix idea of what an operating system should look like, Linux can make a lot of sense as a network-centric server operating system. Companies like Google were able to quickly build entire data centers on moderately priced PC-based servers.
Nowadays, Linux is everywhere: machines running Linux sent you this web page and most other sites you visit. Some other things running Linux: most Wi-Fi routers, industrial computers, sniper rifles (!), supercomputers, TVs, Android devices. And these are just examples. With Android, the world’s most popular operating system, and Google’s Chromebook laptops, also Linux-based, Linus Torvald’s operating system core has finally breached a barrier once thought impossible: the computers everyone use.
IRC, short for Internet Relay Chat is a system for users to connect to a central server through which chat conversations are held in chatrooms, “channels, and private chats, “queries”. This system first appeared in August of 1988 at the University of Oulu in northern Finland, well before commercialization of the internet was about to happen. Jarkko Oikkarinen, nicknamed ‘WiZ’, wanted to extend a bulletin board system for chats use.
Well received, IRC’s code was freed and spread to HUT, today’s Aalto University, and the universities in Helsinki and Tampere. Through personal connections with people at Denver University and Oregon State University, IRC soon became a mass phenomenon for its time, being used for reporting of the first Gulf War.
By now, IRC is probably far past its prime as a major part of how the connected world communicates. The reasons are many, starting with a slight learning curve and non-commercial underdog mentality. Another elephant in the room is that smartphone-friendly ways of accessing IRC never really took off.
But the system and its major networks with geo-distributed, interconnected servers are still in use: it remains a reasonably popular among people and groups with techy leanings, everything from online gaming communities, open source software development to political activism. The system’s minimalism and the distinct lack of animated emojis and formatted text can be seen as both clunky and refreshing. But the major benefit is one of no minor significance: anyone can run their own IRC server. For people who need that, IRC is going nowhere.
6. Erwise, the first available graphical web browser
The human-friendly, graphical web browser is another first in the surprising Finnish over-representation in early essential internet communications. Like the World Wide Web concept, which was built by Tim Berners-Lee et. al. on NeXT Unix computers at the CERN research institute, Erwise, this little known Finnish browser was more of a research project than a product, since the internet was years from including commercial activities in its acceptable use policy.
Born as a master’s project of four Finnish students in 1992, Erwise was, like most of the internet, built to run on the Unix workstations and servers, like those from Sun Microsystems, that were popular in research at the time. It’s hardly surprising to note that it was CERN researcher and computer scientist and web co-creator Robert Cailliau who suggested this master’s topic to students Kim Nyberg, Teemu Rantanen, Kati Suominen and Kari Sydänmaanlakka.
As a side note, it’s worth pointing out that Cailliau himself holds the ‘first’ for a web browser for a non-Unix operating system, namely MacWWW for MacOS. Yes, MacOS before NeXT founder Steve Jobs returned to save Apple with shiny new products and NeXT’s Unix operating system, now used in Macs and iPhones. If something, this is a subtle hint that well-funded research and the circles this puts you in is a central part of Finland’s current stature in the world of technology.
Everyone in or into the Finnish tech scene: what did we forget? Go ahead on and remind us in the comments! If you feel that there’s something up and coming in the works, go ahead and tell us that too!