Underestimating Nokia, blinded by the iPhone

Nokia 5800 XpressMusic.jpgI’ve been thinking about comments people (including me) have made about the Symbian operating system as it has been implemented in Nokia devices. For my part I have regarded S60 implementation as looking outdated, quaint even. Nokia’s people in SA have said that the interface is intentionally very familiar for various reasons and I haven’t been sold on that. Comparing S60 to the iPhone inevitably leads to conclusions being drawn about the iPhone’s obvious superiority over S60 and Symbian generally. I have often said in conversations about the iPhone that while its hardware specifications are very disappointing, its software is clearly superior.

What is clear is that the iPhone’s operating system (a derivative of the same operating system I have running my MacBook) is fantastic. It works well and it looks amazing. The iTunes application store is well stocked with loads of useful, appealing and groundbreaking applications designed for such a powerful mobile platform. I am sure Apple will eventually produce a device that doesn’t have sucky hardware, perhaps as soon as next month when many expect an announcement of a new iPhone or even a tablet device.

On the other hand, Nokia’s hardware for its smartphones has been superior to the iPhone since before the iPhone launched. Heck, my much reviled Nokia N73 Music Edition had better hardware than the iPhone in many respects.

My experience with the 5800 Xpress Music recently reminded me of this debate about the software running on the iPhone and Nokia’s smartphones, including the upcoming N97 (if there is a drinking game based on how often I mention “N97”, you’re probably happily drunk by now). The icons in the menus do look pretty retro and the UI hasn’t changed all that much for some time now. I’m not so sure about the need for consistency (especially at the expense of progress) but I am beginning to think that if you look beneath the colour schemes and other, perhaps superficial, interface elements it seems to me that Nokia devices have a pretty robust operating system. I’ve been installing a number of applications on my E71 the last day or two and they continue to surprise me with great looking interfaces and powerful functionality for such a little device. The software isn’t perfect and some of the applications still bug me but on the whole, I believe S60 is too easily underestimated and dismissed by iPhone and other device fans.

Nokia is due to launch its Ovi Store in the near future. As with a couple things Nokia has done, one of my first thoughts was that the Ovi Store is another “me too” initiative built on the heels of the incredibly successful iTunes application store. It seems that every phone manufacturer has a store all of a sudden. It struck me, however, that the similarities of Nokia’s approach to Apple’s aside, the Ovi Store is probably another underestimated service that could well have a dramatic effect on Nokia’s position in the mobile services marketplace. This preview of the Ovi Store shows some real promise and if you look beyond the less appealing menu options, you may agree with me that there is tremendous potential here, especially considering Nokia’s strong position in the global market:

And here is the pitch to developers. Very much a fluff piece but worth watching and considering:

S60 is looking a little dated despite the pastel colours we are seeing in the 5th edition devices like the 5800 Xpress. At the same time it is important to remember that Symbian is going open source and will be developed by a number of high profile companies, each with a vested interest in the operating system. Sure there are other promising operating systems (I am pretty excited about Android too) but this is an operating system with a good many years of testing and development under its belt. There is already a range of applications available through the Download! service (which looks even more antiquated than the S60 UI itself) which is soon to be replaced by the Ovi Store. Nokia’s WidSets (I recently re-discovered this service and I am glad I did – the Facebook application alone is worth using it) is being integrated into the Ovi Store, as is the content and media service. We are probably about to see a halfway decent challenger to Apple’s iTunes store, especially if you take the Nokia Music Store into account (despite its crippling DRM) and that is not something to sneeze at.

While I have little doubt the iPhone will go from strength to strength with its newfound ability to do innovative stuff like send MMS in iPhone 3.0 (among other things – ok, yes, that was very tongue in cheek but I think you get my point) and Android will start to pick up momentum as the range of supporting devices increase, it will be foolish to write Symbian off because its UI isn’t as pretty. It still needs work to address a number of issues, big and small, but it is a pretty solid mobile operating system. It also keeps getting better and feature-poor applications are being upgraded or replaced by a vibrant developer community, both internally and externally (take the introduction of Nokia Email as a standard install on the E75). This is a potent option!

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