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

While having a 38% market global market share, Nokia 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; many Europeans and Asians regarded their Series 40 operating system 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? I believe 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. You see, cell phones are not perfect devices.

The Evolution of Nokia's Smartphones and a Preview of the New Nokia N97 1



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 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 how 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 shortly, will come out with a phone with 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 roadway 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 ringtones, and a host of other popular features with today’s phones. Nokia really did not market the device as well as it should have, especially in the most important markets.

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 quite a lot of development.

The supposedly next-generation 6600 offered little in the way of improvement. A different form factor, Candybar, rather than a slider, but the same screen with the same resolution and size, no major differences to the OS, and the same battery meant that it was an aesthetic makeover more than anything. The 6600 took off in popularity in Europe.

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 price tag.

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It 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 6600 and 3650. These interpolated images 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 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 technical 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.

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