The Evolution of Nokia’s Smartphones and a Preview of the New Nokia N97

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Nokia, while having 38% market global market share, has never truly been a presence in the world’s two largest economies, America and Japan. We can speculate as to why this is, but the main reasons behind it are lack of support from providers, and products that weren’t exactly what consumers in these markets were looking for at certain points in time.

Certainly, Nokia is an innovator in the industry, their Series 40 operating system was regarded by many Europeans and Asians as the benchmark. However, what happened after that? Why were other newcomers such as Samsung and Sony Ericsson able to gain so much, so fast? My opinion is that Nokia stopped thinking out of the box, and tried to apply the Kaizen (continuous improvement) philosophy to something that required constant innovation and reinvention instead. You see, cell phones are not perfect devices. There are devices we have that serve their purposes singularly well, almost to the point of perfection. Take a Japanese knife, for example. It has been engineered and refined over time, to a point where the balance is as perfect as possible, the blade is as sharp as possible and the aesthetics have reached their height as well. There isn’t much more that we will likely do with such a knife. This evolutionary approach is fine for things like Japanese knives, but not for new technology that hasn’t quite found a permanent footing.

We are just beginning to explore what a personal handheld device can do for us, and in the last few years, what have we seen? The single biggest leap was the iPhone. Not because of any features mind you, but because of the way we interact with the device. It, single-handedly, has changed how we will interact with devices forever. Microsoft has taken a page from the iPhone book, and has talked of the idea of a large pane of glass with multi-touch inputs. Apple has taken iPhone-style input and added it to the trackpads in their latest laptops, and just about every manufacturer has, or in the near future, will come out with a phone with an extra large touch input on the front.

Forward thinking design is what makes the iPhone so unique, and it continues to this day. Google for example, takes advantage of the GPS, proximity sensor, microphone and 3G connection to offer a very usable search program that can find results catered to your surroundings faster than a similar text entry could be input. Has Nokia innovated in this fashion? Arguably, in the cell phone world, not many have, but expectations of the market leader are high.

Nokia took the right decision to go down the smartphone road way back with the 7650. That was a very innovative phone, even a little ahead of its time. Running an open operating system, integrated camera, sliding design, the 7650 could have stormed North America and Japan. It was easily capable of MP3 and video playback, custom ringtunes, and a host of other features that are popular with today’s phones. Nokia really did not market the device as well as it should have, especially in the markets that matter the most.

From the 7650, Nokia moved to devices like the 6600 and 3650. What sort of progress did Nokia make with this step? Next to nothing. The 7650 had an operating system, Symbian, that allowed for applications to be installed. European and Asian developers started making all kinds of programs for the phone, from frontends to Office document viewers, to file explorers, MP3 players, video players and much more. The phone was equipped with a camera, and the fairly open operating system allowed for a quite a lot of development.

The supposedly next-generation 6600 offered little in the way of improvement. A different form factor, candybar, rather than slider, but the same screen with the same resolution and size, no major differences to the OS and the exact same battery meant that it was an aesthetic makeover more than anything. The 6600 took off in popularity in the European and Asian markets, and in 2005, made its way to North America as well, where it didn’t find the kind of success it did abroad. Another phone was released around the same time, the 3650, which was largely the same as the 6600, but was aimed at the youth markets with its funky styling.

After these came the 7610, which followed Nokia’s now-common practice of aesthetic changes combined with a higher pricetag. I

 

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t offered a marginally better 1-megapixel camera, but by now, the Symbian OS had third-party software upconversion of photos that interpolated 1 megapixel images out of the VGA camera in the 6600 and 3650. These interpolated images that looked almost the same as those from the true 1-megapixel 7610.

The “next-gen” 6630 was the first 3G smartphone from Nokia, and that, along with the stereo headphone output was all that was new. It didn’t quite make full use of the 3G, because 2-way video calls were something that was considered part and parcel of 3G phones, and the 6630 didn’t have a front-facing camera.

Nokia did, however, sell a dock with an integrated camera separately, so that 2-way calls could be made. The dock had to be plugged in though, so in operation, it wasn’t much different from using a computer with a webcam, and wasn’t very “mobile.” Even though all of Nokia’s smartphones were more than capable of MP3 playback, none had stereo audio output (smart, Nokia), even though the iPod’s popularity could clearly be seen at the time. Users were restricted to monaural audio playing back through the loudspeaker, through the wired monaural headset, or through a low-quality monaural Bluetooth headset. Yes, they all had Bluetooth, from the start! When we got to the 6680, Nokia added a slightly better camera in the back, and a front-facing VGA camera for 3G video calls, after learning their lesson with the 6630.

Curiously, there were no other changes. By now, Nokia’s innovation had slowed to a standstill. In contrast, Apple released a product that didn’t do that much more technically, but really stood behind the software and continually pushed its development with each firmware update, something that Nokia could have done, having the most superior hardware and software at the time.

At this point, Nokia decided it needed to rejuvenate its image through the marketing department, and then came the N-series phones. These were again, not fundamentally different from the preceding phones, but were marketed as being better, as being “multimedia computers.” They started adding more features this time around, such as better cameras, Carl Zeiss lenses, optical zoom on a model or two, and finally Wi-Fi. Some models were just rehashes of existing models; check out the similarities between the 6680 and the N70.

With the N-series came a newer version of Symbian, one that would not run most of the existing applications. As consumers, we know the stigma of not having backwards compatibility (cough, MS Vista, cough PS3, cough), so the development cycle began anew. What’s interesting to note is that even though the Symbian platform got an update, it didn’t look or feel any different. It never had the animated menus and ease of use that Sony Ericsson’s phones had, but with the fancy OS, there should have been more changes.

Applications have always been short of memory on the Symbian platform, and with the exorbitant prices that Nokia has always charged, more memory wouldn’t have hurt. Even in its latest iteration, the Symbian platform is not what you’d call smooth, relative to the iPhone OS or Blackberry OS. Apps don’t co-operate the way they should. If you receive a Word document in your e-mail, it won’t necessarily open up with the correct viewer, and in the rare event that it tries, crashes and slow speeds are a surity. Nokia came out with a good browser on the N80, and has used it since, but its welcome has worn off. It was great when it first came out, miles beyond everyone else’s browser. Since then, apparently, little development has been made. It’s still a royal pain in the butt to surf, and even more so on flash-heavy sites. Flash of course, doesn’t work fully. Imagine if they made it work… it’d be the first phone capable of browsing the full internet, something even the iPhone struggles with. The N90 and N93 were certainly interesting, but were plagued with the same issues. The N93 had a flip-open mode, just as this new N97 does, but it wouldn’t always register the flip and go into landscape mode, or, would do it very slowly.