Nokia, the N810 Tablet & the Long View

Anssi Vanjoki, EVP of multimedia at Nokia, unveiled the handset manufacturer’s gorgeous N810 handset at the recent Web 2.0 Summit in San Francisco. I got a chance to play with it shortly afterwards, and I can tell you that it lives up to much of its promise.

But what struck me during Vanjoki’s presentation was the realization that the N810 was the third of five in this product line that Nokia is in the process of releasing over several years. The first, the Nokia 770 Internet Tablet, was launched in May of 2005. It was targeted at “named super geeks;” the company’s goal was to sell a mere two thousand of them to specific users. The sequel, the N800, was launched in January of this year and was targeted at a somewhat broader geek segment — “prosumers” who are early adopters.

According to Tom Dunmore of Stuff.tv, around 300,000 of the earlier models were sold (surpassing the company’s projections.) But to hear Vanjoki tell it, selling units wasn’t the point.

North American product releases tend to be driven by competitive urgency — ship now, lest someone else scoop us with theirs. But Nokia’s N810 launch is one step in a longer plan. My impression of Vanjoki’s presentation was that this long view is at the core of Nokia’s strategy. And it’s driven by two key assumptions: That the handset will be the world’s Internet platform, and that it will be open.

In North America, we tend to have a distorted view of connectivity. We associate Internet access with desktops. We each (most of us, anyway) have one cell phone, locked to a carrier.

Not so in the rest of the world. Infonetics estimates that 47 percent of all mobile subscribers come from the Asia Pacific region, 36 percent from Europe, the Middle East and Africa, and only 9 percent from North America. Nokia alone will ship 400 million handsets this year, and most of those devices can surf the web. Geography, power consumption, and lack of wired infrastructure mean that much of the planet will see its first web page on a portable handset. Not only will Internet handsets be everywhere, they’ll be open.

Any discussion of Internet handsets must include Apple’s (AAPL) equally stunning iPhone. Apple has launched a “features” phone rather than an Internet client platform. The iPhone’s menu is reminiscent of the old Compuserve dashboard, which let subscribers choose a carefully limited number of applications. Only Compuserve could dictate what applications a user could run, which gave it fast growth and good control early on.

To be sure, both the iPhone and the N810 are phenomenal pieces of engineering. But Apple is actively trying to restrict what runs on the application in an arms race of unlocking, software updates, and bricking. This has forced many firms (Skype, Webot) to get “applications” on the iPhone through the Safari browser.

Contrast this war with Nokia’s handset, which is based on Linux. Nokia is building a platform that can run arbitrary software. It’ll be messy, and will go through several iterations. But in the end, we know how this story plays out: iPhone is Compuserve; Nokia is the Internet. (Google’s (GOOG) much-speculated mobile device is also rumored to run a pared-down Linux.)

Other companies have proven that this long view rewards the patient. Adobe’s (ADBE) Bruce Chizen, commended for the company’s excellent software quality, says he won’t release software until it’s ready. Games developer Blizzard has delivered installments of its Warcraft and Starcraft franchises years later than originally planned, as has Valve for its Half-Life series.

But Nokia’s view is even longer. It has spent huge amounts of money developing these handsets, and it may take years for them to make that back. But they don’t expect a short win — and the long-term rewards of openness and mobility will make it worth the wait.

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