Lest we forget about Nokia

If you are taking a casual look ahead at the smartphone landscape in the coming months you would be excused for thinking that its really about the next generation of Android devices and the iPhone 4. These two platforms are benefitting from increased competition between the two and the newest devices emerging from both camps are remarkable. Microsoft’s Phone 7 Series Thingy NextGen 7 Phone OS is somewhere out in distant orbit and may make it back into visual range at some point towards the end of the year. What about that other company which utterly dominates the lower end of the market and has been working to develop a truly compelling high-end smartphone for the last few years? You know who I am talking about: Nokia.

If you were reading this blog in the last year and a half you would know that I was a Nokia user for many years (almost a decade actually). I most recently used a Nokia N97 with mixed feelings after hyping it up for myself so much I was disappointed by its failure to meet my arguably unrealistic expectations. I recently switched to the Android platform courtesy of an HTC Desire. I still have my N97: it has become my GPS device (I still believe that Ovi Maps is quite possibly the best navigation application available on a mobile device).

In my short time using the Android platform, I firmly believe it has a good chance of becoming the dominant mobile platform. The only thing it really lacks right now is the richness the iOS4’s application marketplace enjoys (there are perhaps 1 or 2 applications I am really missing on my Desire, they just happen to be biggies for me so I am very tempted by the iPhone 4). At the same time I haven’t come across another device which boasts the hardware quality and organisational support Nokia devices enjoy, at least in this country.

The more I use my Desire the more I appreciate features in my N97 that I took for granted. One thing I miss is a decent amount of onboard storage. My Desire has a measly 576MB of RAM to load my applications and other bits and pieces. I am constantly trying to keep my RAM usage above 15MB to avoid the inevitable and disheartening “Low space” warning. Despite the N97’s past memory handling issues, this much maligned device shipped with 32GB of storage space onboard! I have no idea why HTC couldn’t include a few GB of storage space on the Desire, its one-time flagship device, particularly because applications can’t be moved off the phone’s RAM under Android 2.1. The N97, on the other hand, permits applications to installed on the phone memory, the 32GB drive or even the microSDHD card, for the most part (some applications stubbornly insist on being installed on the phone memory).

Another excellent aspect of Nokia hardware is its cameras. Nokia’s cameras have been ahead of the curve, almost consistently. The latest Nokia smartphone, the Symbian^3 powered N8 has a spectacular 12 megapixel Carl Zeiss camera. Did I mention this is a phone?

This device has a few interesting hardware features (ignore the software for the moment):

  • 3.5″ capacitive, 640 x 360 and AMOLED touchscreen;
  • Supports HSDPA data rates up to 10.2 Mbps;
  • 16GB of internal memory, expandable up to 32GB using an hot swappable MicroSD card;
  • Bluetooth 3.0;
  • HDMI port;
  • GPS and A-GPS receivers;
  • 12 megapixel camera with Car Zeiss optics (focal length is 5.9mm and F2.8 aperture) which also shoots 720p HD video in H.264, MPEG-4 codecs;
  • support for Dolby Digital Plus surround sound in HDMI playback
  • secondary VGA camera for video calls (640 x 480).

Now tell me that isn’t impressive. Now take a look at the 113.5 x 59 x 12.9 mm package (the iPhone 4 comes in at 115.2 mm x 58.6 mm x 9.3 mm):

Nokia falls down when it comes to software and I’m not talking about the operating system itself. I am no expert but from what I am told about the Symbian operating system, it is no slouch and continues to improve with each new iteration. Granted fragmenting it into different OS series and editions hasn’t done Nokia any favours (I can’t count on two hands the number of times I couldn’t run an app because it simply didn’t support my N97’s OS flavour despite being the same underlying Symbian OS) but the underlying Symbian operating system is solid by all accounts I have come across. The latest version seems to be quite an improvement too:

Nokia’s problem is that Symbian hasn’t captured developers’ imagination like iOS (formerly iPhone OS) or Android. Applications which you can find in the iOS App Store are rarely available for Symbian. Heck, there are frequently no Android versions for popular iOS applications but Android is light years ahead of Symbian when it comes to application availability. Developers are just not flocking to Symbian despite its openness and support. If anything, the decision is iOS and/or Android. That said, Symbian may be a dark horse here. Nokia’s tremendous penetration of the mass market gives it a terrific base if it ever rolled smarter phones out to this market that support richer Symbian apps (remember, Nokia used to own Symbian before open-sourcing it and releasing it to the Symbian Foundation of which Nokia is a large but one member among many).

Another possibility, although remote, is that Nokia could embrace Android. This could radically change the game for both Android and Nokia as a device manufacturer. With its design and hardware, Nokia could become the biggest mobile player in both the high-end and lower-end markets. This is probably pure fantasy because Nokia has invested quite a bit in Symbian and related technologies like Qt. That said, the N900 already runs a Linux flavour, Maemo, which is soon to become part of MeeGo, child of Nokia’s Maemo and Intel’s Moblin. Android isn’t too f
ar away, is it? At this point I am talking out of my butt, but I think you see where I am going with this.

Not all Nokia software is poor by comparison. Nokia has had a lot of experience improving its software over the years. Ovi Maps gets better all the time and even the familiar Symbian user interface demonstrates a confidence in its development path and willingness to look a little dated in the interests of making newer versions accessible to long-time users and fans.

Nokia’s hardware, some of its software and its dominance in a significant segment of the market mean that you should take Nokia seriously, even if you have no intention using its products again. There is one important factor which is probably more important than Nokia’s devices and its position in the market. That is the ethos in the company. Having switched to an HTC Desire the one thing I miss most is feedback from HTC or its local agent, Leaf. As a Nokia user I knew that Nokia’s employees sought out interactions with Nokia users to improve users’ experiences with Nokia products and services. I have yet to encounter any other device manufacturer’s or distributor’s employees who work as hard as Nokia employees to respond to issues, take time to improve experiences and just engage generally as the Nokia people I have met so far. They’re not quite ever present and not everyone receives the degree of attention the more visible bloggers and journalists receive, but that presence is there. Nokia employees are, as a gross generalization, interested and engaged.

On the other hand, Apple appears to be largely disinterested in South Africa as a market and its local distributors are less focussed on building on users’ passion for Apple products as they are about protecting their distribution channel. HTC devices are improving all the time and yet the decision whether South Africans will see major software updates depends on whether rolling out those software updates will interfere with profits from new models (the absence of an Android 2.1 update for the HTC Hero because of the HTC Legend‘s roll-out is a good illustration of this apparent thought process). Apple and HTC/Leaf are just not that interested in stirring South African users’ passion for the products they produce. Whether these companies succeed really depends on their products’ merits and, as my Desire’s example shows, sometimes those devices can be lacking in painful and yet easily remedied ways.

So where am I am in all of this? I am an Android fan (still deciding about HTC/Leaf) and will continue to prefer Android devices. I am enticed by the iPhone 4 and will wait for it to come out and be reviewed in real-world conditions before deciding whether a switch could be in my future. I probably won’t go back to a Nokia device anytime soon but I remain a fan of Nokia, the brand, its people and its passion for its users.

Cue tears, flag flapping in the breeze and dramatic music.

Update: Take a look at this post titled The changing shape of Nseries – no scaremongering, just the facts for a preview of what lies ahead for Nokia’s higher end phones. While shifting across to MeeGo as the standard platform for Nseries devices makes a lot of sense, it is frustrating because of all the hype around Symbian^3 as the N8’s platform. Like the N900, the N8 will be left out in the cold as the only, or one of the few, Nseries devices running its OS. Poorly thought out.



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  1. Tweets that mention Lest we fo avatar

    […] This post was mentioned on Twitter by Paul Jacobson, Nokia South Africa. Nokia South Africa said: Really great post by @pauljacobson – worth a read! Some food for thought! – Lest we forget about #Nokia http://bit.ly/cJN7pD […]

  2. Nokia Ringaz: Connecting local avatar

    […] I’m not quite sold on the name but then again, I am probably not the type of person Nokia is aiming for with the blog (you know, young and hip … or whatever the current term for “hip” is). Nokia has been working pretty hard to expand its presence in South (and the rest of) Africa. While it dominates with lower end devices, it has had a challenging time convincing more affluent users to use its smartphones in the face of the iPhone and, increasingly, a range of Android devices (I count myself as a user who switched to Android not too long ago despite Nokia’s advantages). […]

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