Fondling the Nokia 770 Internet Tablet
by Mike Cane
Text and photos Copyright © Mike Cane 2005
All Rights Reserved.
During the recent LinuxWorld Expo in New York City, Nokia surprised everyone by announcing the Nokia 770 Internet Tablet. The net was filled with reports about it and I just had to see it in person. A quick email to IDG’s Mike Sponseller and less than 24 hours later I was at Nokia’s booth as Press. (Thanks again, Mike!)
(This report is accompanied by photos. Unfortunately, the model of Casio Exilim camera I was using lacks a close-up mode. So images tend to be very blurry. To overcome my non-existent photographic skills, Japan needs to introduce AI into their cameras.)
Although many pictures had already been published, in person I was shocked at how tiny the device actually is. Here are the measurements of some popular and well-known devices against those of the 770:
5.5" x 3.1" x 0.74 " – 8.1 oz – Nokia 770 Internet Tablet
5.4" x 2.9" x 0.7" - 6.8 oz – Sharp Zaurus SL-5500
5.1" x 3.0" x 0.63" - 5.4 oz – Palm Tungsten T3
4.9" x 3.4" x 0.9" - 14 oz – OQO Model 01 handheld computer
4.7′ x 2.8" x 0.8" - 6.8 oz – Palm LifeDrive
While it tops the list in one dimension, it’s easy to see that its size is more PDA-like than what we typically envision when the word "tablet" is used. This is a device that can easily fit in a jacket or coat pocket — perhaps even a shirt pocket. In addition, these dimensions are with its included slide-on cover. Remove that and it’s even slimmer.
This device is based on Debian Linux, a desktop version of Linux. This means, among other things, that developers will have to do less work to port existing Linux applications. Linux on small devices have usually been customizations with fewer features than what Nokia is offering. Nokia has set up a site at Maemo to assist developers in creating and porting programs to the 770.
The face of the unit has, from top to bottom, a very, very loud speaker (louder than any PDA), 4-way directional control with center Select button, a Return button (which in the browser acts as Previous Page and which in most programs acts as Escape), a Menu button to display drop-down menus in an active application, and a button to return to the Home screen.
On the top of the unit, from left to right, is a Full Screen Toggle button, a +/- Zoom button, and a switch that usually acts like Suspend but which can also completely power off the unit (which would be equal to a Reset; there otherwise is no hole to invoke a Reset, as found on PDAs). On the right is a well for the stylus, which runs across the unit, not down. The stylus is a bit short and is not round; it is sort of flat and light and made of plastic — but I didn’t have any trouble using it after getting over my initial awkwardness with its shape.
All of the buttons are positioned so that most operations can be accomplished with one hand. The buttons are solid, have good tactile feedback, and do not present any "jiggling" usually associated with shoddy manufacturing.
On the back is a slide-off door for a removable LiOn battery. This is a standard Nokia phone battery, rated at 1500 mAh, so purchasing spares should be very easy.
On the left and right sides are indented tracks into which the the rails of the slide-off-turn-around-slide-back-on cover fit. This operation reads more awkward than it is, so I’ve taken some photos to illustrate it.
The cover is light-grey hard plastic (although Nokia’s own site says brushed metal, hmmm…) with an embossed NOKIA logo. It not only provides additional grip and protects the screen, but also automatically places the unit into Suspend mode when it’s raised over the screen.
At the bottom is an AC jack, a mini USB connector for communication with a desktop computer, and an earphone jack. When connected to a desktop computer, the 770′s storage card (which is RS-MMC; Reduced-Size MultiMedia Card) will appear as any other Plug-and-Play storage device. Most PDA owners will be familiar with this feature, from accessing their devices via Pocket PC’s ActiveSync Explore feature or Palm’s Drive Mode. The earphone jack is a standard consumer electronics size — 3.5mm — allowing the use of any headphones or earbuds.
Wireless communication is via Bluetooth 1.2 and 802.11b/g (yes, b and g!). There is no IR port, however. Nokia made a point to mention that unlike other Bluetooth devices, the 770 does not broadcast its presence "for security reasons." (See this article for the possible wisdom of that.) This could mean that existing Bluetooth keyboards might not work, even with 770-specific drivers. It seems to me that the Bluetooth keyboard would have to discover the 770, whereas current keyboards expect a device to discover them. That said, although Nokia has no plans for one (which is odd, since they already have this keyboard it is possible for a manufacturer to create a portable Bluetooth keyboard to work with the 770. Another side-effect of the 770 not broadcasting its Bluetooth presence is that 770-to-770 Bluetooth connections will not be possible.
However, 770s will be able to communicate with one another using WiFi. This will make it easy to, for example, share notes and photos, and also provides developer opportunities for the inevitable multiuser game. Nokia has also stated that an OS upgrade in early 2006 will bring VOIP and text messaging capabilities.
Internal storage is 64MB DDR RAM and 128MB of Flash RAM (of which about 64MB is available to the user). External storage, as mentioned earlier, is via a Reduced-Size MultiMedia Card (RS-MMC; a 64MB card is included with the 770). When I asked, Why not SD?, I was shown a Nokia phone which also uses RS-MMC. I guess one way to look at this is as a "Nokia-phone-compatible slot." (Owners of Nokia RS MMC-slotted cameraphones will find it easy and convenient to store and view photos on the 770.) The card is hidden under a tiny flip-out cover. Once the cover is opened, the 770 will automatically unmount all files so the card can be safely removed. (I’m a bit apprehensive about the fragility of the cover and I hope Nokia’s designers and engineers have anticipated potential problems with it.) RS-MMC is up to 512MB capacity, with 1GB expected by year’s end. As part of the package, Nokia will include an adapter that will allow the RS-MMC to fit into larger conventional MMC slots.
The overall feel of the unit is solid, with great build quality, balance, and a matte finish that is fingerprint-resistant.
The screen is just stunning. It’s bright and has a full-range of brightness controls. The back light can be turned all the way down, but cannot be turned off. (This is an immediate opportunity for a developer.) Color fidelity, saturation, and contrast are impressive. All colors, including black, are deep, solid, and not "ghosty." Text is very easy to read. The screen has a solid feel under the stylus and isn’t squishy. It’s one of the best screens I have seen and felt. One thing it does not do, however, is rotate into portrait display. This is another possible opportunity for a developer.
With an announced price of $350 (details about this later), there is nothing about the feel or look of the 770 that shouts "Disposable!" or "Cheap!"
The software included is just about everything most people would need to have a good Internet experience immediately (part of the following list is taken
directly from Nokia’s site):
- Web Browser
- Flash Player version 6
- Email Client
- Internet Radio
- RSS News Reader
- Media players, Image viewer (for many popular audio, image, and video file formats)
- PDF viewer
- File Manager
- World Clock
- Sketch (with color inks)
- Contact list
- On-screen soft keyboard
- Handwriting recognition engine with dedicated soft input area
Most of these programs are based on widely-used and available open-source programs. The browser, for example, is based on the well-known Opera. The one inclusion that isn’t open-source and is licensed by Nokia is the handwriting recognizer. The Nokia booth representatives wouldn’t reveal the source of this, preferring to say that the number of suppliers for such an application isn’t very large. The HWR is trainable, so I look forward to making it recognize my long-used Palm OS Classic Graffiti strokes.
Aside from software for contacts and notes, there are no other PDA-like PIM functions. There is no Calendar or Tasks, for instance. Although this might seem disappointing, the 770 is capable of waking up to sound an alarm based on a scheduled event. All that’s needed is a developer to create or port such a scheduling program. I expect theKompany developers of software for the Linuxed Sharp Zaurus, to eventually port their collection of programs.
Many of the photos that have appeared show the Home screen divided into four panels: a Newsreader display, an Internet Streaming Radio selector, a Nokia logo (or custom subsidized-sponsor logo), and a clock. This Home screen is completely customizable. Instead of a news feed, the Inbox could be displayed, or a photo slide, or a note. The clock can also appear in analog or digital versions. The background wallpaper can be changed too. The Home screen (in most cases) can also be totally without content, displaying simply the wallpaper. This entry point to the 770 shows a great deal of thought by Nokia. Contrast it to either a Palm device or a Pocket PC which invariably require the addition of entire third-party programs to change or modify their Home screens. It also gives an idea of the sort of interconnectedness and system-wide cooperation Nokia would like to see between included and third party programs. And it advertises the general sense of "openness" Nokia is aiming for with developers.
On the left of the screen is a vertical border with icons. This is the Task Navigator and it’s somewhat similar to the Dock used in Apple’s OS X. Current and most-used application icons will reside there for easy access. All of these can be selected via stylus or the hard buttons on the face of the 770. These icons can be used in two ways: 1) to explicitly launch the selected program, or 2) to choose the entry point into the application via a pop-out menu (for instance, with email, directly jumping to the Inbox or going straight to Create a New E-mail). I think this is superior to all current handheld interfaces. Once an application is open, the Task Navigator can be hidden by pressing the Full Screen button at the top of the unit. This is very handy for seeing more information while browsing the web, creating a document, or reading a PDF file or ebook.
When a program is open, it will generally have a Program Title tab at top left with a small triangle indicating drop-down menu options. At the top right will appear a down-pointing Minimize icon and an X to quit the application. Other options might also appear (some, depending on developers, might be global indicators, such as a battery status icon). Some programs will also have a bottom bar with icons for options; for example, a word processor could display icons for document formatting.
In addition to this, some applications can have their displays dragged. When looking at a large photo in the Image Viewer, for example, the stylus can drag the picture around instead of using the 4-way directional hard button on the face of the 770.
What it’s like to use
The 770s I got demos of — and also used myself — were pre-production. Although the hardware was mostly set in stone (aside from the battery they were using, which was lower-capacity than what shipping units will have), the software was not yet final.
There has been a lot of talk on the net (generated by a single report) of the 770 being slow. This is contrary to my own experience with it. I noticed a good deal of delay in loading programs — most taking more than ten-fifteen seconds — but I was told that Nokia is still working on the software and they intend to minimize such delays as much as possible. Since the 770 uses basically a full desktop operating system and offers the promise of applications being fuller-featured than other handheld units, I didn’t expect to see the instant loading I’ve been accustomed to with, say, my Palm Tungsten E. Also, if waiting a few more seconds means having more powerful programs on a larger screen, I’ll take that trade-off.
During demonstrations and my own exploration of the 770, it also froze at points. This also didn’t bother or surprise me. Pre-production units tend to do these sorts of things. I don’t expect the shipping 770 to be filled with the kind of launching delays and freezes I saw and experienced at this demonstration. I’m puzzled, though, how someone could extrapolate from the pre-production software on demonstration units to a final, shipping version. That’s too big a leap to make, in my opinion.
If there’s one time a delay might be frustrating, it’ll be when doing a full Reset. As designed, the 770 is intended to be turned on and booted once and thereafter to remain in Standby mode, with instant-on capability. Holding the Power button down for several seconds causes a full Reset, which seemed to take about a minute or so to complete (and this is a very-fuzzy time estimate; the Nokia reps were exceedingly good at filling such time gaps with informative, although distracting, talk!). (I intend to have a stopwatch with me at future hardware fondles.) Even here, I was told Nokia intends to decrease the delay.
If there was one disappointment for me, it was the handling of video. I found the sample files to be unacceptably choppy. Given the speed and type of CPU, this shouldn’t have been surprising to me. I think Nokia is being ambitious by even including such a capability and I expect future units to handle this better. For now, I consider it a future feature demonstration. It can still be used, and possibly still be useful, but I don’t expect it to be thoroughly enjoyable. (Perhaps here I am engaging in the kind of extrapolation I earlier chided someone else for doing.)
When it came to web browsing, I called up sites that typically cause problems on other handhelds due to the complexity of their pages. The 770′s Opera-based browser handled these without any problem and the speed of page builds was very acceptable. Browsing hotspots on this will be a joy. There were problems with only two pages. One page I couldn’t call up was entirely Flash-based. Unfortunately, the demo units available didn’t have the Flash player loaded on them, so I couldn’t display that page. (Those interested in just how Flash-heavy that page was, can go to http://www.captainscarlet.com and see. Another reason I wanted to go there was for the possibility of the 770 displaying the video clips that were available.) The second page was a Japanese site. Without any Japanese character sets installed, I got the typical ASCII garble that ensues. This led to a disappointing revelation from Nokia: It’s unlikely any Japanese character sets can be installed due to the CPU overhead they would demand. Clearly this debut model isn’t intended to be sold in Japan or other Asian countries that require such complex character images.
In a device that’s otherwise so filled with thoughtful design and software features, one thing is missing: Java. I’m not qualified to judge if this is a critical oversight or not. In my own use of the net, I rarely encounter a site that causes Java to load on my PC. Perhaps others will see this omission as a fatal flaw. I’d be surprised if Nokia isn’t working on it as either an OS upgrade or for a future version of the 770. They are committed to Java and I’m sure they see its full mobile possibilities.
Earlier I said, "a future version of the 770." Yes, I think the 770 represents for Nokia a new direction and new opportunity than their traditional consumer cellphone market (and otherwise hidden from us infrastructure sales to cell telephony companies). Nokia tried to merge cellphones and video games with their N-Gage phone. It was a flop in the market and was widely ridiculed on the net. But Nokia went ahead and released a second N-Gage. This isn’t a company that gives up easily. I expect Nokia to keep improving the 770. Inside future models will be faster CPUs and higher-capacity batteries. Perhaps Nokia will even add a conventional round, metal stylus.
I’ve been impressed by the response of the Linux community to the 770. Already, months before it’s possible to own one, ports have already been made of a TO-DO program, another contacts program, the Plucker ebook reader, and a full-fledged word processor! There are also two blogs from 770 admirers: Nokia 770 and The 770. I’m also impressed by some of the behind-the-scenes history of the 770 that’s been revealed. I think this is further evidence of Nokia’s commitment and the unique way they’ve used to create the underlying 770 operating system.
I’m excited by the 770, both in its current state and for the future it portends. I look forward to owning it once it’s available. I’ve become disappointed with existing handhelds and believe that the 770 will invigorate, if not actually redefine, this area.
Some people will object to what they perceive to be the "short" battery life: 3 hours with continuous WiFi. Anyone who intends to spend more than that in, say, a Starbucks, should do what they would do with their notebook computer: bring along the AC adapter or a spare battery (the battery is small and light). I don’t think Nokia can be blamed for the shortcomings of battery technology. Every company is hitting that wall. Others might object to the use of RS-MMC for storage. For this I will invoke what I’m calling (for he is too modest to do so) Kirvin’s Law, an observation made by Jeff Kirvin that a storage format shouldn’t matter, because within one-and-a-half-to-three-years the entire device will need replacing anyway — and storage costs will also continue to plummet during that time. Some might even object to the 770′s lack of an integrated cellphone. Personally, I’d rather not have to pay for a cellphone contract when all I want to do with a 770 is use it with WiFi hotspots. Besides, Nokia has already made clear that next year VOIP can be added to it. That’s something I probably won’t even use, except in an emergency (this is probably a bad disclosure to make in an article about a Nokia product, but I don’t own — and don’t want to own — a cellphone).
Industry critics have cited other "Internet Appliance" failures as reasons why the 770 will also fail. I think this indicates a lack of foresight. The Newton and the first Jeff Hawkins PDA, the Casio Zoomer, didn’t create a market as they were expected to. Yet Jeff Hawkins’s second device, the Pilot, did. It offered the right size, the right price, and the right features. All of the others didn’t. So it is with the Nokia 770 Internet Tablet versus past "Internet Appliance" efforts. With the 770, Nokia has done it right.
Final word: Price?
The announced price from Nokia is US$350. But this comes with some sotto voce caveats. First, expect to order it directly from Nokia. Second, don’t expect this to turn up at your local CompUSA or Best Buy or other electronics retailer. Although Nokia’s intended target is the consumer market, they are looking for intermediaries who will subsidize the cost of the hardware (as I think Nokia itself will be doing with its direct sales). These intermediaries would include companies that market broadband services to the general public, such as Time Warner’s Roadrunner service or Cablevision’s Optimum Online. Another, although probably less important intermediary, would be corporations that furnish their employees with a 770 as part of their duties. In the description of the Home screen, I pointed out the Nokia logo. This area could display the logo of the subsidizing intermediary or corporate supplier. Perhaps Nokia will be ambitious in its marketing of the 770. Why stop with these potential targets? Why not convince ebay, Yahoo, amazon, and Google to sell it? Why not find a celebrity with a large audience that could tie into the 770′s streaming internet radio capability? Howard Stern and Sirius Satellite Radio spring to mind. What about the audiences for Rush Limbaugh and Air America? Nokia has a head-start on everyone else; they should try to embed this into the consumer market as fast and as widely as possible, usurping the inevitable me-too products.
I think the 770 fits in an unforeseen gap between the PDA as we’ve known it and handheld computers such as the OQO and the Sony U. It offers just enough features to make it possible to graduate from a small-screen PDA without having to incur the expense and headaches of a handheld computer. And knowing Nokia, with its determination to create a market and then to fiercely defend it, the 770 will probably change the face of wireless communications and possibly even instill in people a curiosity about having Linux as their desktop operating system. I think, as the saying goes, this will change everything.