Cabel Sasser: They were known for their distinctive ringtone, which haunts me to this day. "Ba-da-doo doo, ba-da doo doo, ba-da-doo doo doo!"
[SOUND EFFECTS: original Nokia ringtone]
Christa Mrgan: Welcome to the Panic Podcast, a podcast about Portland's Panic, but maybe not exactly. I'm Christa Mrgan. Join me as I follow the quirky subplots and surprising characters that round out Portland's most lovable indie-software- and game-publishing company. Today: how Finnish cellphone giant Nokia created the first feature phone to offer mobile gaming on par with handheld systems like the GameBoy, and how that device failed so spectacularly that it became a super popular meme at a time before social media really existed. And what that has to do with Panic, exactly. We have to start with Nokia in the early 2000s. Here's Panic co-founder and CEO, Cabel Sasser.
Cabel Sasser: So, long before there were smartphones, we had portable game consoles, and we had feature phones. Nokia, of course, was sort of the king of the cool feature phone/flip phone/candy bar phone. You know, they were known for being indestructible workhorses. Honestly, they made great phones. Of course, the iPhone came along later. We all know how that worked out.
Chris Kohler : It was definitely before the iPhone because this would have been laughed right of town if, uh, if had this been after the iPhone. But yes, I think it was 2004, 2005ish.
Chris Kohler: My name is Chris Kohler and I'm the features editor at Kotaku right now.
Cabel Sasser: As Nokia made more and more phones, they reached this super funky zone, I want to say like in the late 90s, early2000s, where like they were just making whatever and there were like phones that look like boomerang shapes and the numbers were like curved and stacked and they had phones that were like, dodecahedron. They didn't actually have that, but they had a lot of extremely wild ideas and it was clear that like, we've sold so many phones, we don't know how to sell more phones. We'll just make all the weird phones, whatever the phone is. Look, Fred, you've got an idea for a phone? It's a tangelo with keys wrapped around it? Ship it. Like, just send it right off to the factory. It seemed like they reached this amazing zone of like, no filtering.
Alex Pasco: So they were designing phones and what felt like every conceivable button layout possible. Like they had circular dials and there were phones that look like teardrops and there was one that had a dialpad that was literally a maze. I swear I'm not making this up. I'm Alex Pasco. I design things for the internet.
Cabel Sasser: So one day I think Nokia sees people like playing video games, the Nintendo GameBoy Advance or whatever existed at that time was really popular. People have phones. It makes sense that we should combine a phone and a game machine, which actually does make sense! So they introduced the Nokia N-Gage, and this was their solution. We can finally bring gaming and telephony together.
Chris Kohler: And it was a big deal, man. They had a big booth at E3 to show these games off.
Christa Mrgan: E3 is the Electronic Entertainment Expo, a trade show for the video game industry.
Chris Kohler: They were really trying to do this phone for gamers. So it was sort of the layout of a Gameboy Advance. So you had your buttons one through nine on the, on the side and sorta a couple of them were sort of raised up, and so those would be your a and B buttons.
Christa Mrgan: I just want to jump in here and tell you that while, yes, they sort of repurposed the telephone keypad to feature an A and B button, this thing actually had way more buttons than a Gameboy Advance, like twice the number of buttons. And some of them were real goofy. Okay. Back to Chris:
Chris Kohler: and so you'd buy cartridge games because of course, you know, nobody was downloading anything. So you got to go buy a game cartridge at Electronics Boutique for like 50 bucks or whatever they were and put it in your phone. In the first model, you had to remove the battery to change the game cartridge.
Cabel Sasser: So you remove the battery cover, you take out the battery, which powers down your phone. You take out, kind of looks like a SIM card, you put another one in, you put the battery back in, you put the case back in, and then you power up your phone and then you can play the new game. And no human being on the planet wants to do that to switch games.
Christa Mrgan: And there was another problem with the phone, and this is 100% true, just look at the photo in the show notes: It was basically the size and shape of a hard shell taco.
Alex Pasco: It did look like a taco. You'd hold the long side up to your ear and the other side to your mouth and you would talk on it and people could see the screen and the buttons. It was just real strange. Made you look like you had a giant plastic ear.
Ola Carlsson: In Sweden, we called it the elephant ear. My name is Ola Carlsson. I work as an exhibition producer at the Contemporary Art Space in Sweden.
Chris Kohler: Imagine the taco not so that the side of the tortilla shell was against your ear and mouth, as you would think, but the spine of the taco shell was pressed against your face.
Chris Morris: The N-Gage was basically a semi-circle phone with probably some of the worst design, characteristics I've ever seen. My name is Chris Morris and I am a freelance reporter.
Cabel Sasser: When you talk on the phone, you don't hold it against your face. You point it out to the world, so everyone is looking at your phone and your phone screen and you have this massive thing, sort of sticking out of the side of your face. And that's because for whatever reason, the electronics for the microphone and the speaker, whatever, they put it on the side. And I remember specifically reading an early article about the Nokia N-Gage, and they talked about this hesitantly, and they said, "to spin it, Nokia calls this 'sidetalking.'" And I remember just thinking, what!? You can't, you can't just make up a thing like you can't, like, that's incredible on many levels. It's amazing that they, that there was a PR person that came up with the term side talk is like an act of PR genius. Like they sat down in a meeting and they're like, wait, you do what. Like, that's how you talk on the phone. What? How are we gonna do this? Well, let's spin it as like a thing. Like only the N-Gage has side talking. And I just remember reading the article and like being both incredibly impressed and incredibly horrified that they were gonna A, do this and B, try to sell it to us as like a feature. Like, in the future, all phones will have sidetalking. No! No phones will have sidetalking! No one wants to hold their phone like that. We've had telephones for a very long time, you know. Alexander Graham bell did not hold the headset forward when ta-- like, anyways, that was my first impression of the Nokia N-Gage. A, you had to take out the batteries, switch games and B, it is the only phone in the world with side talking.
Christa Mrgan: Sidetalking was such a weird, unnatural way to hold this big taco-shaped device, that there clearly must've been some mechanical reason for it to exist. As you might already know, Panic is working on a handheld gaming device called Playdate. And even now as the project is nearing completion, there are so many complications that come up. Hardware is complicated. When researching the N-Gage, I figured, well, they clearly were building this off of existing phone technology and the only way they could engineer it to be a gaming device that also worked as a phone was to turn the whole thing on its side when you use it as a phone to talk. You know, they're great at making phones, but it's a totally new device with more complicated components and it just ended up that the only way they could get a microphone and earpiece in there were to put them on the side of the taco phone or something like that. And then, I talked to someone who helped launch the original N-Gage.
Jussi Solja now runs his own company, The Sexy Beast, a firm that works with clients ranging from tiny startups to multinational corporations on new campaigns and products in immersive, rapid-fire creative sprints. But back in 2003, Jussi ran the global marketing team for the N-Gage. And it turns out that this revolutionary device was meant to be just the first of what would hopefully be many phones to sidetalking. There were, in fact, several prototypes going around.
Jussi Solja: The N-Gage wasn't the only device that had the sidetalking. There was this kind of a touch screen device that looked like, it was thicker, and like almost like, you know, a phone receiver, but with the touch screen on the side and it was really weird. There were prototypes like that going around. And I think there was just this one, probably Finnish engineer, that really just got into his heads that the sidetalking thing will be all the rage. That people want to talk to mobile phones, like they used to talk to, you know, old school phones or whatever, and so I think that's kind of where it happened. And I think, mechanically, there was no reason. for the the piece to be on the side or any of those things. It was just that someone internally decided that this is a novel, cool new thing that people will love. And then they just went with it.
Christa Mrgan: What? There's totally an Earth 2, where everyone has sidetalking touchscreen phones. We just ended up in the wrong timeline. The one with the coronavirus. Here's reporter Chris Morris again, who was reporting for CNN Money when the N-Gage launched.
Chris Morris: We had a review unit, that had been sent to us at CNN, and I tried it, and just realized what a terrible system it was. And so I had written up this extensive column, about all of the, the flaws of the engage and how, if you wanted to transfer from one game to the other, it took the better part of two or three minutes, as I recall. 'Cause you had to take the back of the case off, and take the battery out, and then replace the game, and then, you know, do it all that in reverse. And then reboot the system, which was not a fast boot.
Christa Mrgan: So this seemed especially weird to me. And like with sidetalking itself, I assumed there had to be a mechanical or engineering reason for making swapping out the games so difficult. But like with sidetalking, that turned out not to be the case either.
Jussi Solja: The device itself was designed to be a texting device. So, you know, optimized for texting. That's why they have the key pads on, you know, the other two, two different sides and all that kind of stuff. But then I think there was an engineer somewhere in Finland who had ported Doom, the original Doom to the S60 platform.
Christa Mrgan: So they realized that this feature phone designed to optimize texting could run games. Real games with 3d engines, as opposed to, say, Snake. And they just said, great, we'll make it a gaming device and compete with Nintendo. But the hardware had already been designed in such a way that you had to remove the battery to swap out the memory card. On a feature phone, that's the card you'd maybe have put some MP3s on. It wasn't something people would have been changing that often on a texting-focused device. But then that memory card slot became the game card slot, without any kind of retooling or redesign. And they shipped it. And then Chris Morris wrote his review about what a pain this phone was to use in real life, from paring it down and removing the battery in order to switch games to the ridiculousness of sidetalking itself.
Chris Morris: But we needed some artwork for that, and, I had used the phone just as a phone without the headset. And so I went down the hall and got one of our graphics people and said, "listen, I need you to take a picture of me. " We were trying to express the frustration and how silly people would look if they were walking down the street holding this like you would normally hold a phone. And a little did I know, I had given birth to an internet meme.
Christa Mrgan: A photo of Chris holding the Nokia N-Gage to the side of his head, and looking very skeptical about it, soon appeared on a website called sidetalking.com.
Chris Morris: I don't remember where I first heard the term "sidetalking." I always kind of thought the website was the one that came up with that. And, within a few weeks, someone that alerted me to the site that had gone up and it had sort of taken off from there.
Cabel Sasser: The sidetalking website initially it was a collection of photos from these early reviews of people sort of grimacing or looking mildly uncomfortable because they're having told this phone in such an unnatural and unusual way. And the photos were so funny because the discomfort was so visible. And so you would go to cnet.com or whatever, and read a review of the N-Gage and look at the photo and go, "Oh, that's hilarious." And so the website was, those collected, but very quickly became much more.
Chris Kohler: I forget who did it first, but people started taking photos of themselves, the most famous one being my friend, uh, Christian Nutt, which, you've seen the picture. It's like the ultimate sidetalking picture , of himself holding upt his phone to his face, with the worst expression on his face.
Christa Mrgan: Christian worked for Gamasutra at the time, and his photo ultimately surpassed the original Chris Morris photo to be the iconic sidetalking photo. If you look up sidetalking's page on knowyourmeme.com, the canonical image is the photo of Christian Nutt. There's a link in the show notes where you can see it on our podcast's website, along with a bunch of other good ones. Because pretty soon, it wasn't just the N-Gage that people were using to sidetalk.
Alex Pasco: It's pretty rare you can pick up a new tech product and your only reaction to that product is braying laughter. And so that was the N-Gage, right? And so after that it was just a hop, skip, and a jump to answering this question: like what if you could side talk on any product?
Cabel Sasser: There was an email address on the site where you could submit photos. So in addition to the photos of the journalists, there was sort of a call to action: send us photos of you sidetalking. Remember, there was no social media.
Alex Pasco: I think you had to email it, which I mean, it seems like it seems like such a dinosaur thing to do now. You have to email something to someone?There was no "upload picture" to sidetalking.com. There was no functionality for that.
Chris Kohler: Of course there is no Twitter, there's barely anything to put these funny pictures on. So somebody has to literally go register a domain and put all this stuff on there, and then says, "Oh, send other pictures."
Christa Mrgan: Yeah. Social media was in its infancy at this point. Myspace was popular, but Twitter and Facebook didn't exist yet, and memes were mostly being shared on message boards and then on these sort of purpose-built goofy websites. Sidetalkin existed alongside earlier, more widespread memes, like All Your Base Are Belong to Us, the Hamster Dance, and that weird dancing baby that's been circulating since the late 90s. Sidetalking.com was one of the first of these single-focus photo meme websites to really take off.
Chris Kohler: It was like the precursor to similar sort of things like the planking or the ice bucket challenge or memes or, you know, I, you see everybody doing it, you want to put your own spin on it and put it out there. Although, I think the difference was that, the internet at that time, everything was sort of -siloed off. So it was impossible for it to become something that everybody saw and everybody participated in. And there was also because it was all filtered through one person or one central clearing house, like there was no way to really subvert it or take it in a different direction, or use it as a, as a way to harass people. You know, it was kinda like, it was, it was pure and beautiful, I think. In a way that everything on the internet is poisoned now. But sidetalking, just because of the way that the internet worked at that point, it could become this sort of very funny thing, run its course, and not become essentially, you know, toxic later.
Cabel Sasser: Because it was curated and nobody could like post, "you're all dumbasses for doing this. Why are you doing this?" Which is nice. Yeah. Nobody was abusive, except for the guy that ran the site. But anyways, yeah. I know I'm going to sound like an old man, "it was a better, more gentler time." It wasn't, I mean, the world was still horrible, but like, the internet was maybe a good 25- to 40% better because there was slightly more innocence.
Alex Pasco: At the time on the internet, it wasn't like-- monetization of websites and blogs, that wasn't really a thing. Like, people didn't put very many ads on websites, even when they got super popular, like it just, it wasn't as much of a thing probably because there wasn't enough money being poured into, poured into it to make it a thing. So we were always just making just ridiculous side projects to basically make ourselves laugh, and hopefully other people laugh.
Gedeon Maheux: It was funny because back then it seems like we all had more spare time. I'm Gideon Maheux and I'm one of the co-founders of the Iconfactory here in North Carolina. I think we started around the same time that Panic did, actually.
Christa Mrgan: They did! Panic and the Iconfactory, go way back. And Iconfactory developer Craig Hockenberry is also featured in Episode Two, titled "Pantscast." Anyway, a lot of people had these sort of single joke websites.
Gedeon Maheux: We had another one of our own called marbleofdoom.com that was just a webpage that had the beach ball spinner on it, and you could go and log on there and you could add time, you could time your Mac and how long you would see the marble of doom between apps. And you would enter in like "I waited 30 seconds, I waited a minute, I waited two minutes," whatever. And then the website just kept a tally of all the time that people wasted waiting for the marble of doom.
Christa Mrgan: Alex Pasco had one called celebritieseating.com.
Alex Pasco: That was sort of my variant in this world where ah, I would just take pictures of celebrities, comma, eating, and put them up and caption them in any way that I felt was appropriate for that. And it had its own, its own, you know, moments of fun popularity. I got interviewed by like a bunch of radio stations and it was in Spin Magazine for some reason.
Gedeon Maheux: I remember, cause this was around the same time as I talked about calm and it's just all the things we, we had so much extra time for back then.
Christa Mrgan: Plenty of time for hundreds and hundreds of people to submit photos to this random website, sidetalking.com-- not just with the N-Gage, but with all kinds of things.
Chris Kohler: So I forget what I did. Did you look this up before I got on the phone, or do you, do you remember? Is this is still accessible?
Christa Mrgan: It is very much still accessible. If you visit sidetalking.com or sidetalkin.com, Chris Kohler is wearing a blue Donkey Kong t-shirt and is holding a huge Xbox console to the side of his head, pretending to talk on a cellphone.
Chris Kohler: Ha hahahahahaha oh, God. So many people send in submissions. I remember waiting for mine to go up and like refreshing k on it like a cell phone. 'Cause I thought, "Oh, I'll do it with an Xbox. This will be the funniest thing." And when it finally went up, it went up in a batch of like a hundred photos, and there were multiple people doing Xbox, like I was not, that was definitely not the only one who had that idea. I wish I had done it with something cooler, but I mean, it was also just like, let me grab the, the biggest game console in the world.
Mike Merrill: I think my favorite was the original Xbox that someone was holding against their face. And just the idea that like, yeah, well, if, if the N-Gage is a phone, why isn't that thing a phone, you know. My name is Mike Merrill, and I am a publicly-traded person and former employee of Panic. I was kind of in awe of the sidetalkin' images and it was sort of intimidating in a way. Like there was some real amazing creativity, because you could, there was different ways different people would go with it. You could take any random objects and just hold it up to your side of your face. But there was something especially funny about taking items that somehow related to the Nokia N-Gage. Like, just the idea of like kind of related to it was, especially endearing.
Alex Pasco: I am sidetalking on a very early Dance Dance Revolution pad for, I believe, the PlayStation Two. And it's, it's funny 'cause it kind of looks like a blanket. I, I'm not actually side talking on it. I am talking into the port that would go into the PlayStation Two while I comforted myself with my, my weighted blanket that is a, a PlayStation Two dance dance revolution pad.
Gedeon Maheux: And we just went around the office, the lot of us, and started trying to find things that would look really goofy for sidetalking, you know, that you could talk sideways into, and some things made the cut and some things didn't. And the Mac OSX was the new at that time, I think. And that's one of the reasons why one of the images is that.
Christa Mrgan: Remember when OSX came in a huge box, and you had to buy it for like $129? There's a photo of Gedeon holding that huge box up to the side of his head on sidetalking.com.
Gedeon MaheuxOur flickr page is still up, and our flickr page contains all of the photos that we submitted to sidetalkin.com
Christa Mrgan: The website would also play a midi version of the song "Jive Talkin" Sidetalking.com was absurd. Tons of people submitted photos of themselves side talking on all kinds of things, from cereal boxes to toilets to pets. Some photos were a little cringy, but most of them were pretty funny. And the overall aesthetic was "early inept attempt at web design," with broken image tags and exposed HTML all over the place, and plenty of animated GIFs.
Mike Merrill: I think the Drudge Report siren was on there. Um, A lot of animated GIFs, just a lot of like early internet excitement presented on screen.
Christa Mrgan: And remember Jussi Solja, Head of Global Marketing for the N-Gage? He said that, while no one on his team submitted a photo to the site, they were all very, very aware of it, and they had their own inside jokes about sidetalking.
Jussi Solja: Once we were staying in a hotel in New York with the team, and the rooms were so tiny that you couldn't fit into the toilet properly. So we coined the term sidesh--
Cabel Sasser: I'd bet you $1,000. Wait, no, that's too much money. I bet you $25 that if sidetalking happened today, with the introduction of a new new Nokia phone, everybody would think Nokia was behind it. Everybody would think this site is a hundred percent secret promotion for the new Nokia phone. Um, guaranteed nobody thought that when sidetalking came out. But even I would think that today, like I would think, "Oh, of course. Hilarious. Yeah. They're, they're writing a site like a moron who loves their bad phone. They got me, I guess I'll buy it now." But I wouldn't have thought that the time.
Christa Mrgan: So yeah, Nokia was aware of it, but it definitely was not Nokia's website. But who was behind sidetalking.com? Who would get these hundreds of photos that people were emailing in?
Cabel Sasser:I would get them, because I made the site.
Cabel Sasser: I made the site. It was my site. I feel kind of bad.
Christa Mrgan: In case you are here around the 23-minute mark, wondering what any of this has to do with Panic!
Cabel Sasser: Friends definitely submitted photos. And that was like a funny thing about it. Like, some of my friends from the Iconfactory submitted photos and there's some photos of Panic employees on there. There's photos of Panic employees that didn't even work at Panic yet! Like, Ned Holbrook who submitted a photo, and I didn't even know who he was. And then later he worked for us for a little while and he was like, "Oh, by the way, I have my photo on sidetalking."
Christa Mrgan: Yeah, there's a photo of former Panic employing Ned Holbrook of him sidetalking with a comically-oversized iPod. It's like six feet tall.
Cabel Sasser: The word side talking was so stuck in my head again, so both impressed and baffled at spinning. What in no way can be considered a plus as a feature.
Christa Mrgan: Except it totally was! I'm still blown away that there was just this Finnish engineer who thought, "Someday, everyone will sidetalk. All phones will feature sidetalking." Anyway.
Cabel Sasser: That word, sidetalking. It just haunted me. And in that time when you're haunted by something, you see if the domain name is available. That's what you do for fun. So I went and did a, whois sidetalkin.com and of course it was available, because who cares? And it was 1874 or however long ago this was. This did take place in the 18th century, right? And it was free and I registered it and I just like, well, what am I going to do with this domain? I'll put up these funny photos of these journalists and kind of, there was a careful line. I didn't want to like outright mock this thing, because I knew that people worked hard on it. But at the same time, it's inherently funny. And so, ended up concocting this like absurd voice for the site of like the Nokia N-Gage super fan. Like this internet-dwelling man-child who just loves his Nokia N-Gage and wants to like share it with the world and legitimately thinks that sidetalking is great and is moderately illiterate and but enthusiastic to the absolute extreme, and so that seemed like a pretty good balance. Like it's not registering "Nokiasucks.com" or "sidetalkingsucks.com." It's like, let's try to bring some comedy into this thing that's pretty ridiculous and never rip on sidetalking. Only, you know, rip on people that hate sidetalking because this guy that makes a site loves sidetalking. There's like, looking back at it, there's really funny things because like I, that voice today almost hits too close to home as like a entitled gamer, sort of 4chan voice, which now just gives me the total heebie-jeebies. And back then like that, oh, that person definitely did exist, but I definitely wasn't aware of them. And now we know way too much about them. And so it's, it's funny the things that when you look back and you're like, well, yeah, I wouldn't have done that today, but at the time it made perfect sense.
Christa Mrgan: The sidetalking guy persona reminds me of like a prototypical dasharez0ne admin person on Twitter. If you don't know what I'm talking about, have a look at @dasharez0ne--the "o" is a zero--on Twitter and enjoy the weird positivity.
Cabel Sasser: There's definitely like a spiritual connection between dasharez0ne and sidetalking guy, who has no name. Whoever sidetalkin guy is of, yes, like, poor punctuation and capitalization, really like making up words just occasionally to suit your purposes. Preposterously enthusiastic. But also, like kind of a dark underbelly.at the same time. Yeah. I feel like sidetalking guy and dasharez0ne admin would get along really well. Let's just write in the language and voice of this like mega Nokia N-Gage super fan that will like probably get a sidetalkin tattoo at some point and is just all in on this phone and maybe saw people making fun of sidetalking and thought, "no, no, no, no, no. You do not make fun of sidetalking. This is my sidetalking. We are going to celebrate it. Screw it off Nokia, or whatever I wrote. I don't even, I don't even, it was like going into a fugue state, writing that site.
Mike Merrill: I think that Cabel entered sort of a fugue state and became a different person who was, maybe a, a mirror version of himself who is the biggest sidetalking enthusiast. It was as if, layers of him are stripped away and just like the inner joy of a 12 year old N-Gage Nokia fan erupted, but with all the same skills and mental abilities as capable himself. And I just feel like he just, he just created this beautiful website in awe of the idea of sidetalking and, and the N-Gage itself, but really about sidetalking and how this was like a, a new way of, interacting with the world. And he did it in a way that was so completely earnest and loving that the humor of it just kind of came through and like, no one could clearly love sidetalkin this much, but there was no, there was no twisting of the knife. Or there's no like, I mean, the joke, the joke was created by Nokia itself, and so he didn't need to add more to it.
Christa Mrgan: Aww, poor N-Gage. It's not like it was a bad idea. Combining a phone and a handheld gaming device was really obviously a good idea, one that eventually came to pass in the iPhone and other modern smartphones.
Jussi Solja: We had some fantastic team, amazing people that are now working at, you know, some of the best gaming companies in the world and beyond. And, you know, it was a great time, having Nokia back it up with, you know, tons of money and you know, us crazy gamers getting to create a dream thing. Obviously, not being able to necessarily affect the device itself, but doing a lot of really pioneering, amazing work.
Christa Mrgan: People who work at major game companies now, like Finnish companies Supercell and Rovio, were doing great work on games for the N-Gage, which was not easy to design for, considering that its screen was vertical instead of horizontal. So porting games, especially, it was a pain, which was another failing of the design of the device itself. But I found one person who had an engage and loved it mostly kinda. Ola Carlsson, who earlier described the N-Gage as "the elephant ear," bought one secondhand when he was a teenager, so at least he didn't pay full price for it. Oh, have I mentioned that on top of its other ridiculous flaws, the N-Gage also had an MSRP of $299 US dollars? Maybe it sounds fine now, but that's like 425 US dollars today. And back then, that was way more than most phones cost. And the GameBoy Advance retailed for $99. OK, but so Ola got around the big price tag and also found a way to get around having to power down the device and remove the battery to change games. He hacked it! He even put movies and episodes of the Simpsons on it. Remember this was like 2004, so that's impressive.
Ola Carlsson: I love that it'd play movies. That was amazing. I just like bought the memory card and loaded everything onto it. It was like super easy to hack, I think. And the resolution was horrible, but it's funny. the brightness was terrible. It was like this basically unusable outside. But I think also back then I texted a lot. So maybe like, I remember talking on the phone was quite expensive in Sweden back then, so maybe I texted more.
Christa Mrgan: Oh man. That's what the engage was originally optimized for. Yes. Ola, it was like the ideal N-Gage poweruser. Uh, except for the hacking, I guess.
Cabel Sasser: This is where this story gets even weirder.
Christa Mrgan: well, yeah. You knew that it had to.
Cabel Sasser: One day out of the blue, I get an email from somebody actually at Nokia. I'll see if I can find it and look it up for you, Christa.
Christa Mrgan: He found it! Check out the link in the show notes.
Jussi Solja: We felt like Cabel was like an influencer, you know? And we were like, "Hey, so you've created this amazing thing. We want to be a part of it somehow in a positive way."
Cabel Sasser: Basically the gist of it was, "we have a new N-Gage coming out, the N-Gage QD, and we're getting rid of sidetalking. Can we work something out or do something with your website to get the message across that sidetalking is dead?
Jussi Solja: We kind of wanted to use it as a bit of a fun thing to promote the new device. We didn't force anything down his throat, like you have to do it like this, or you have to do that. But it was more like, here's some devices, hope you like it, you know, see if you can promote it and so forth.
Cabel Sasser: You know, I'm no fool. Well, that's not entirely true, but usually I'm not a fool. No. Sometimes I'm not a fool, and in this case I was like, this is, there's no other exit strategy for sidetalking.com. This site has no end, and I will spend the rest of my life posting these photos, which wasn't necessarily true, but I was like, yes, absolutely, let's do it. I can make this really ridiculous page where the sidetalking guy is just absolutely furious that you are removing the best feature of the N-Gage from the N-Gage. And I can update the site and that will be like kind of a subversive way to advertise that the, you know, N-Gage QD is a new and better product.
Christa Mrgan: And so, Cabel wrote an ending to sidetalking.com.
Cabel Sasser: The best part of any sidetalking update was to go to real old animated GIF collections on the web and try to find the best animated GIFs. That was easily the best part. And I found just the perfect one, which is this weird purple blob creature sort of sobbing. And it like, why am I laughing? Now that I think about it, it's so sad. He's just like, he has his mournful face and looks up at the sky with tears streaming down his face and like just looping over and over again. I don't know why it's a purple blob. It's such a good GIF. Oh, the second I saw that I was like, yeah, that's going right on there.
And it's also like, there's other classic sidetalking guy crutches like forgetting to close your image tags and like putting the wrong width and height. You know, exposing raw HTML. There's a running gag of just constantly getting the copyright dates wrong on everything. Like saying copyright 1991 to 2007. Like just not having any concept of how copyright dates work, which is why I was so happy when I tweeted, "does anyone have any memories or you know, or have any photos on sitetalking? Let me know!" And on my tweet, I said, copyright 1997, whatever. I put that at the bottom. And a guy replied! He's like, "I think you have those dates wrong. Those are not the correct copyright dates for the," and I was like, "YES, gotcha!" Sidetalking guy 2020. It still works. Yeah. It felt so good. Sorry guy. But, uh, yeah, finding the right animated GIFs. Writing the right amount of garbage and just above all else being incredibly angry at Nokia for, for removing what is indisputably the best feature of the N-Gage. And so it was really fun to write that page. Sorry. It was extremely fun to write that page.
Well anyways, so, uh, I kind of deal with them. They paid me $5,000.
Alex Pasco: And so he, he tells me this and I'm like, they're going to give you five grand just to like to stop making fun of them? I was, I was totally confused by like even what they were doing and why they thought this would be a good idea. But I was like, "well, if I may,"
Cabel Sasser: Alex had a very specific idea of what I should do with that money.
Alex Pasco: Let's take that money and take it to Las Vegas and film ourselves, wasting it in every conceivable way we can think of like, you know, tearing up a hundred dollar bills into like the fanciest toilet we could find or whatever, and let's record that and put it on the website right next to their ad.
Cabel Sasser: They actually made a commercial, like an actual commercial where they like hired actors and like art-directed it and did the full thing. It probably cost a million dollars. And the whole point of the commercial was no more side talking. And it was like a kid drew like daddy on a piece of paper, but drew daddy with an enormous ear.
Christa Mrgan: So you can see the ad, and Alex and Cabel's absolutely preposterous Las Vegas video-- Nah, they didn't actually end up going to Vegas
Cabel Sasser: I bought a Phillips plasma television. They were very expensive back then. That's a lot of money for a TV.
Alex Pasco: And I thought, this is like the greatest idea in the history of time. Uh, but he bought a TV, so I'm glad for him for that.
Christa Mrgan: In addition to the $5,000 Nokia gave Cabel three Nokia N-Gage QD devices, one of which he gave to his friend, Jona Bechtolt, another one ended up somewhere in storage at the Panic office, and no one remembers what happened to the third one. In exchange, Nokia got the weird fake rage and sorrow of the N-Gage guy, plus five side talking related domain names, including both sidetalking.com and sidetalkin.com.
Cabel Sasser: I know the official Nokia term was sidetalking, but I knew that no one was going to call it that, so that's why I registered both those domains. At the same time.
Christa Mrgan: Oh, but turns out he never actually transferred those domain names over to Nokia. Oops. And there's one more weird twist. Mike Merrill remembers maybe buying sidetalking.com from Cabel at some point, but no one can seem to pin down the details.
Mike Merrill: The only mention of it I can find is an archive of my old blog where I was doing like a quarterly update of all my many different projects. And I think I was excited because I realized that with that, with Nokia's, new excitement about it, and, you know, buying Cabel out, I was like, Oh wait, technically, that's mine, because I bought this from Cabel. At the `time I was doing a lot of very sort of weird and interesting things around the idea of, "Hey, can we all get together and collectively purchase something?" And the first sidetalkin wave, which was the pure enthusiasm, still had enough traffic. And my idea was like, just put ads on it or play around with it that way and you don't have to do anything. It just had traffic. So I was, that was my original plan, but I didn't want to buy it myself, cause I wasn't sure that there was enough traffic texturally like make it work. So distributed that risk among some people.
Cabel Sasser: What is he talking about? I don't remember any of this. You just, whatever Mike says, it probably happened and I don't remember it. So just talk to Mike. He'll cook something up as he does whatever it is and just, okay, whatever he says, I'm sure it happened. I don't remember.
Mike Merrill: I feel like probably what happened was, cause I can't find it. I don't even have email records back that far. It seems like something I would have emailed, but, uh, it may have been like a verbal agreement with Cabel, and more of a conversational thing, but it was definitely something that I, that I had other people, you know, quote unquote invest in.
Alex Pasco: I have a weird memory of this, but it's not clear. Right. Cause, cause Mike did this a lot. So I remember him talking about this at one point, and like, I think talking to his shareholders about it, but that's as far as I remembered this particular story.
Mike Merrill: And I've been bugging people and no-- everyone's emails seems to stop at the archive of like 2005. No one has anything before that. So it's very strange. Lost to the mysteries of time.
Christa Mrgan: If you're wondering what kind of shareholders we're talking about here, visit kmikeym.com. When Mike said he's a publicly traded person, he meant that you can buy shares in his life choices. The more kmikeym stock you own, the more you directly influence his decisions.
But, OK. That's basically it for the weird twists. I think. What happened next was effectively sidetalking.com and sidetalkin.com were frozen in time for over a decade. Cabel continues to renew the domain registration every year, and in 2018 added a link from the sad end of sidetalking front page to what sidetalking.com looked like before the Nokia deal. So you can experience both the original site and its farewell page and all their weird glory.
The N-Gage as a device and also a gaming platform as it was briefly, ultimately failed. But Nokia itself is still a thriving company with over a hundred thousand employees worldwide, though it sold off its phone business to Microsoft in 2014. That has a lot more to do with the iPhone and the rise of smartphones generally than it does with the N-Gage of course. But anyway, Nokia is fine. It still does a bunch of licensing for other phone companies and makes telecommunication infrastructure equipment. Not bad for a company that started as a pulp mill in 1865.
Cabel Sasser So. Looking back now, knowing what we know about making hardware, it's so hard because it's one of those things where I'm sure everything made sense at the time. There's no question in my mind that those two design decisions were completely a hundred percent logical to the people that decided them and agreed to them. That of course, the only place we can put this is under the battery because that way the game slot is soldered to the motherboard and we don't have to get a ribbon cable to move it to the lower edge, which would also increase RF interference, which would cause us to fail our FCC testing. You know, there's a reason why the game slot was under the battery. Similarly, there's no question in my mind there's a reason why you had to sidetalk. I just don't know what that reason is. I want to find out so bad.
Christa Mrgan: Yeah, no, sorry. Pretty much what happened was one Finnish engineer thought that sidetalking would be a cool new thing, and the phone was designed to be a texting device that wouldn't need to have its memory cards switched out very often, and they just didn't redesign it after realizing it could play games. Oops.
Thanks so much for joining me for this episode of the Panic Podcast. This is the second-to-last episode of season one. Panic is still chugging along, with everyone working from home. And thankfully, everyone is safe and healthy We hope you're doing okay, too. The final episode of season one will be about Playdate. So mash that subscribe button as hard as you can, and tell your friends to give it a listen
This podcast was written, produced, and edited by me, Christa Mrgan, and our amazing theme music was, of course, composed by Cabel Sasser. Neven Mrgan designed the podcast page and artwork. Tim Coulter built the website and wrangles the podcast feed. Michael Buckley made the super cool Audion web player featuring tons of faces he revived from the Audion archive. You can see and use it by hitting the play button on any podcast on our podcasts page. A huge thank you also to Chris Kohler, Alex Pasco, Ola Carlsson, Chris Morris, Jussi Solja, Gedeon Maheux, and Mike Merrill. And thanks, of course, to everyone at Panic.
I cut this little snippet of Steven Frank talking about why he doesn't listen to podcasts out of our episode about Pantscast, because it just seemed a little too mean. It's pretty funny, though.
Steven Frank: You know, there's always some nerd's podcast that has some intro with like 10 seconds of intense, heavy metal. You know, electric guitar raging: durr durr durr durr. And this nerd comes on like, "Oh, Hey, welcome to my podcast. This is Star Trek News." And I dunno, that always makes me chuckle. And again, I'm very sorry to all the podcasters out there.
[SONG: ‘Jean Luc was Better’ by Jon Black of Fort Atlantic]
Christa Mrgan: And there's your new song to wash your hands to! Extra special thanks to Jon Black of Fort Atlantic. Stay well, everybody!