Tuesday, December 2, 2008

Nokia's new phone

This morning at Nokia World in Barcelona, Nokia launched its latest smartphone, the N97.

The intro video positions it as “the N97 mobile computer,” and other Nokia talks continue the theme of mobile phone users in the developing bypassing PCs and laptops and going straight to a (Nokia) mobile phone as their Internet access device. This positions S60 (and Symbian OS) as more directly competing with laptop operating systems, something it has not attempted to do in the past.

Of course, the main thing about this “phone” are the non-phone features. It continues with the same highly regards 5mp camera as the N95 and N96. In addition to the GPS, it is the second Nokia to feature an integrated compass, with obvious benefits for navigation devices. And like most smartphones (except the Vodafone/Verizon crippled BlackBerry Storm), it has Wi-Fi in addition to 3G.

It joins its major rivals (such as the iPhone and BlackBerry Storm) in having a 3.5" touchscreen display. Since the S60 phones have not historically been touchscreen, this — and the demo video — suggests major UI changes that we won’t understand until real live phones are available.

The N97 certainly raises the bar on screen resolution, with a 640x360 screen vs. 320x240 for the N96, 480x360 for the Storm and 480x320 for the iPhone 3G. In addition to the screen (and unspecified UI changes), the other major change is the slideout keyboard, reminiscent of the Danger Sidekick, the Google G1 or various LG (e.g. F9100) and Samsung (e.g. Glyde) phones.

The N97 is vaporware — as much as 6 months off — so I suspect that its advantage on screen resolution will be short-lived. Nokia’s decision to go with a physical keyboard (shades of the Nokia 9000 but much smaller) is a different (and perhaps prescient) take than Apple and RIM (thus far) on the smartphone Internet experience. Nokia and RIM can afford to experiment with keyboard and non-keyboard devices, whereas I suspect Apple’s limited scope (and its uncompromising vision) will keep it in the non-keyboard camp for several more years.

In addition to the timing, the other thing that may limits the N97 impact is the price: $700 or €550. Yes, Nokia’s high-end N series phones have been their most sophisticated devices, but with priced befitting a king, they have played to a limited (largely business) audience. Given the current economy this may be a difficult time to launch such an expensive device.

To offer a conclusion, I can’t do better than Om Malik’s assessment this morning:

The very fact that Nokia is only now getting out touchscreen phones shows that as a company it is stuck in bureaucratic quicksand, with a culture of consensus that makes it difficult to respond to new challenges. Nokia — and I have been following them for a while — has become one of those companies that, much like Microsoft, is good with announcements, not so great with the follow-up.

There is word that Nokia has a whole arsenal of touchscreen phones coming in the latter half of 2009. Let’s hope they can get their mojo back and start coming out with great devices — especially ones that will make me go back to using Nokia devices on a daily basis. Until then Apple and its iPhone has the pole position all to itself.

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