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The Truth About Nokia, Symbian, Maemo, Nokia N900 and the Nokia N97

Monday, 31 August 2009 00:00

Written by Chris McFann

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The Truth About Nokia, Symbian, Maemo, Nokia N900 and the Nokia N97
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evil_tux_00I have been busy lately, and haven't taken much time to address the community in my normal fashion, so there are plenty of things I've been dying to say. This has turned out much longer than I expected or intended, even after multiple edits. This is as condensed as I can get it, but I think it will dispel most of the myths and mess being spread across the web lately.

With so many developments in the mobile space, I now announce I have reverted to the christexaport of old. I inserted my RSS reader into my veins, Googled all of the research, took the pulse of most of the forums, blog comment sessions, water cooler whispers, and impromptu soapbox discussions on more sites than I could count, and now, at last, I'm fully prepared to tell you the truth, the whole truth, and nothing but the truth about all the confusing and seemingly sudden moves by Nokia.

I know there are plenty of opinions from various pundits around the world, but who needs opinion when you have the facts? Some of what I say may or may not surprise you, and may even sound like pure speculation, but I was thorough in my research, so here's what's what. Some is indeed proven fact, some information from reliable sources, some straight from the horse‘s mouth, and the rest is just common sense and using my skills of inference. Either way, just trust me. I’ve got it all covered.


I had the chance to do a rather extended trial of the N97 for nearly two months, but I have yet to give much opinion on it outside the walls of our forums, and then only in bits and pieces. I have my reasons why I chose to remain relatively silent. I have been admittedly busy in my personal life, but I also wanted to avoid my words being mixed in with the cacophony of misinformation, near sighted views, and knee jerk reactions spewing from the blogosphere. We’ll touch on that a little later.

Let me start by saying I like the device for the most part. I have my complaints about the N97, mainly from a evolutionary standpoint. It replaced the N96, or if you were like me and never did feel the N96 was the heir to the throne, the N95 8gb, but not very well. Lost was the heavy multitasking and fast task switching, mostly due to the lack of a Dpad and Clear/Back button on the face of the device. Also, the RAM was just anemic, and really limited the N97 from being the laptop replacement I’d hoped it would be.


Although QWERTY devices are all the rage right now, most Nseries users are masters of the T9 text entry system, but the N97 only came in landscape QWERTY with no portrait T9 model to supplement it. T9 with the touchscreen was surprising decent, but taking up the screen for the keypad disconnected me from the web page or document I was viewing, and left me feeling handicapped in the end. There are countless ergonomic issues, like having to reach to the upper left hand corner to exit the text entry window with my thumb was not well designed.

But here’s why I liked the device. S60 5th Edition is really just S60 3rd with touch, which means most of the 3rd Edition catalog will be ported to this OS. Also, with Qt for Symbian now available, we will begin to see Maemo apps ported over to this device as well, and with a touch interface, it should make the transition very well.

I have little doubt the N97 will be a great device after a few firmware updates. I expect to see kinetic scrolling in menus and more widgets, and the browser is the best I’ve seen on any mobile until the N900. Others are faster, but none access more of the content on the web.

I also believe we might get the chance to install open source builds of Symbian or Maemo on these devices in the future. I see no reason the N97 couldn’t support a build of Mer or Symbian^4, as long as someone in the community is willing to compile the build and make it accessible. All in all, I give the N97 a B+, and that can improve over time, as the N95 did in its heyday. Its hardly been a couple months, and the N97 has already improved, and I can imagine what it will become.


From 2005 to 2007, Nokia released innovative device after innovative device, ushering in a new paradigm to mobilism, bringing the competition to its knees as a result. Nokia’s technological superiority was so far ahead of the game, there was no real competition. However, as you’ve probably heard on more than one occasion from various tech sites and talking heads, Nokia stopped focusing on producing top quality hardware in 2007, instead releasing barely competitive models and conceding its top dog status in the consumer mindshare. Something changed, and Nokia all of a sudden changed direction, allowing neophyte competitors to infringe on its territory of the ultra high-end device, catering to the mainstream market at the expense of the high end. But wait a minute. Is that what really happened? Absolutely not.


If you study the device design and production phases Nokia usually adheres to, it takes around three years to get from a concept to an actual working retail product. This means that when Nokia was announcing their iconic N95 superphone nearly three years ago to the day, they were already moving forward with their strategy to bring Maemo to smartphones at the same time! It also stands to reason that this is when the decision to buy Symbian outright and make it an open source ecosystem occurred as well. But Symbian was the dominant force in the industry, with superior devices, a majority of the public mind share, all with Nokia as the master puppeteer, seemingly maneuvering ahead of the competition at every step. So why take a step back? On the other hand, is that even an accurate assessment of the subsequent commercial responses from Nokia in the first place? Again, not at all.

Here’s what REALLY took place. Nokia saw the momentum gaining with the Open Handset Alliance and its Android OS, and recognized the appeal of the iPhone for consumer smartphone users. They also envisioned a vertically integrated business model, which they‘d definitely need to compete with Microsoft, Google, and Apple. If you think back, Nokia began buying up many compelling companies, like Twango, Avvenu, Navteq, Gate5, and other smaller companies to integrate into their vertical solution. At the same time, perhaps even months before, and ever since, OPK and the Nokia brain trust’s most commonly used word whenever discussing Nokia strategy was, guess what? Services. Not netbooks, premium smartphones, nor apps, not games, but web based services. Imagine that…

And so was born Ovi. However, Ovi on the device was not enough. Nokia’s plan was to deploy its Ovi services across multiple device classes, from featurephones and smartphones to netbooks, desktops, web tablets and maybe even set top boxes. This is what would take Nokia to the next level, with its services enabling its device business to grow, and vice versa. Nokia leveraged its brand recognition and global reach into insurance of fiscal survival for years to come. So next time you hear someone claim Nokia is doomed, realize it’s just a myth born of not understanding the business. In today’s fast moving mobile market, planning is the most important aspect to long-term survival.


So why does everyone seem to be following the applications gravy train if it is all about services and vertical integration? Because in the short term, it is the truth, especially for the competition. The more incomplete and immature the platform, the more necessary certain apps become to fill in the gaps. Apple’s Flash free browser and low screen resolution makes using the browser tedious for some web services such as Twitter, YouTube, Facebook, and MySpace, unless the site is “iPhone optimized“, which is really an app itself.

Android’s initial lack of video capture and Flash meant a similar situation. But all of the major players read the same research, and both Apple and Google are employing similar vertical integration strategies. They just have to start from scratch with certain disadvantages. They both benefit from selling all those apps, but they know that isn’t the future, believe me.


And what is the future? Obviously its services. Services can span across multiple venues and screens, and even infringe on a competitor’s device. The seven main service sectors are remote file access, file storage in the cloud, music, telematics, media, messaging, and gaming. These key emphasized service sectors will be where the real war will be fought in the next half decade.

Apple is new to the mobile space, and, outside of their messaging, media, and music services, lacks a good example for a majority of those in-demand web services consumers will flock to over the next five years.

Google already has formidable services in most of these sectors, a product of its dominance on the desktop, with remote file access, file storage in the cloud, telematics, media, and messaging services, but hasn’t made much noise as far as gaming, though YouTube has started to become just as focused on music as video, it turns out. However, until Android gains more traction, it will depend on other device manufacturers to provide a venue to deliver those services, which Google has done a good job of, especially via the iPhone, ironically.

Nokia, through its astute moves 3 years ago, reinvented itself, and has a fairly complete suite of services in all seven sectors along with an install base of billions of devices upon which to deploy them. Needless to say, Nokia is wisely following the research studies, and it is already beginning to show. They’ve gone from being satisfied to provide a platform upon which others could deliver services, to an all in one, one stop solution to battle the industry on all fronts.


nokia_booklet_3g_00While Nokia must pay close attention to RIM and Samsung on the device front, its biggest competitor in the services is obviously Google, which had its head start many years ago in the Web 1.0 era. Nokia has an uphill battle poaching Google’s loyal followers.

But Nokia does have an advantage over the search giant, and that’s brand recognition and reach. Many of Nokia’s consumers’ first experience using the internet are from a Nokia phone. By putting netbooks and web tablets in their hands, they are supplying the desktop venue some have never had, all with Ovi services preloaded, the perfect way to introduce them to the Nokia experience.

The Maemo5 bullet is a totally new beast, since this is the first time the desktop grade browsing experience is truly pocketable, putting a juggernaut of a service platform in the hands of many across the globe at any given time. Nokia figures if a consumer will use their service on a mobile phone, that presence can be transposed to the desktop experience provided by netbooks and tablets, which has worked beautifully for Google already, so the formula is very much a proven plan, giving Ovi legs Nokia never had before. This cross-pollination of services throughout the web’s many interfaces is the making of an expanding, connected, and powerfully accessible audience.


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