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Nokia, the N810 Tablet & the Long View

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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, 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.

19 Responses to “Nokia, the N810 Tablet & the Long View”

  1. Matt Thomas

    I am wondering with respect to the bluetooth functionality on the N810 specificly if anyone has a program that can be loaded to allow it to act as a ‘handset/headset’ for a cell phone. I understand this tablet is not meant as a phone, however with the data connection to my existing phone I can get internet in more locations that with WiFi alone. I would like however to negate the need to reach for my cell phone in another pocket to make a call when I realize the N810 is not currently WiFi connected. I assume such an app is possible does anyone know of one?
    Unfortunately I am not a developer and can not come up with one on my own.

    I certainly hope Nokia ads world phone functionality to the next version. I would easily pay another $100 to replace both my palm and my cell phone with one beautiful internet device that would practically speaking decimate the iphone, and allow me to keep my existing provider.

  2. I fully concur with Mike Salsbury’s comments, very well stated. What I love about my Nokia 770 & N800 is the overall open flexibility that they provide. It’s great to think “What should I try to achieve with my Internet Tablet, Today” where each new model in this line-up increases built in capabilities, which in turn increases open options to the user.

    To stroll anywhere, anytime with true internet access from a small Linux pocket computer with applications that are improving all the time which can be updated/ downloaded in a snip, is just fantastic.

  3. I’ve had the N800 for a couple of months now, and the 770 before that. The 770 was a usable device but not by any means an excellent one. To hear that Nokia didn’t expect to sell too many is not a surprise in that context.

    The N800 is definitely a step up. My main complaint with it has been using the on-screen keyboard. I’d be able to update my blog without a problem using the N800 if it wasn’t such a pain to type. It looks like the N810 has a pretty elegant solution for that.

    While it may surprise the Apple Faithful visiting this site, I don’t WANT an iPhone. If you gave me one, I’d sell it to buy the N810. Seriously.

    The N800 I’m using now has several things to recommend it that the iPhone doesn’t. First, you can get one for $239 if you look online. It has two SD slots, so it can be expanded quite a bit, and you can swap SD cards as you like. Can’t do that with an iPhone. I don’t have to even have a cell contract to use the N800, but if I have a cell contract with Internet access and a Bluetooth enabled phone, the N800 can use that connectivity. I can connect a full-size Bluetooth keyboard to the N800 if I want, along with other Bluetooth devices. There are lots of applications I can install on the N800, available free online, that don’t void my warranty or turn my N800 into an unusable brick. The built-in Opera browser and Flash plug-in have satisfied all my web browsing needs since I got the device. The display is perfectly readable and clear to me, and while I may not have a fancy multi-touch display, I can certainly zoom in and out to read web page details on the N800. Plus, I can access a large music library on Rhapsody that I don’t have to buy. I don’t have to have iTunes or an equivalent to update the device or its software, just a WiFi connection. I can use Skype and make free calls with it if I want to, again so long as WiFi is around. I can read and respond to email, keep up with RSS feeds, play games, instant message, etc. I can buy additional batteries and swap them out on long trips, and they’re standard Nokia cell phone batteries so I have lots of potential places to buy them. It charges from a standard USB cable, wall outlet, or car jack. When connected to a computer (Windows, Mac, Linux) it acts as a storage device I can copy items to and from, allowing it to act as an extension to my computer. I can record voice notes, take (mediocre) snapshots with its built-in camera, and plug in headphones to listen to music or watch videos.

    Is it a replacement for my laptop? No. While it’s capable of many things I want to do on the Internet, it’s not powerful enough for others (say, World of Warcraft). But it’s a handy device that fits in my pocket, goes with my just about anywhere, and gives me at least basic Internet connectivity.

    But best of all, this is at heart a Linux device. That means it’s potentially able to work with a huge collection of existing applications, with many being developed and released specifically for this device.

  4. Interesting. Yes I think Nokia is more open than Apple. But they haven’t really created a new standard.

    What we need are new standards to push/pull information between devices so that recipients are instantly notified in some type of XML push/pull dashboard (not necessarily of any particular standard), and any type of background applications can be woken up depending on the information received – all within a web framework. (Contrast this with Blackberry’s push platform which is dependent on Blackberry servers and does not do a good job of extending real web applications.)

    So while I think its great that Nokia is slapping linux onto a device, I think they are still taking too much of a client heavy approach and not addressing the hard problems. I think the Google mobile platform is going to outcompete Nokia platforms in the long-run.

  5. Odie Colone

    “That is the first time i’ve seen this phone – and to say the least it is very exciting. Nokia makes amazing phones that never cease to amaze me.”

    IT’S NOT A FREAKIN’ PHONE! It’s an Internet Tablet! It’s a computer you can put in your pocket. The only phone capability it can even remotely be said to have is that it has Skype and Gizmo clients, and you can link it to a SIP server such as Asterisk.

  6. “Nokia is as proprietary and closed as the next company. They are just hedging their bets. Note for example, that the N810 does not have a cell radio.”

    What’s your point? Since N810 does not have a cell radio it makes Nokia as closed as the next company? Are you a bit slow or something?
    Cell radio was left out that they could be more open to the community and do things regardless of the operators. But, like Anssi Vanjoki said, if they feel like putting a cell radio inside internet tablets, then they will do it. And still be more open than Apple will ever be.

  7. One quick note here: This isn’t about whether Apple has opened the platform (as Seldon accurately points out.) It’s that they didn’t view an open platform as part of a long-term strategy from the outset.

    As recently as September 24, Steve Jobs was on record that Apple was working against iPhone unlockers (“It’s a constant cat and mouse game,” from an article by Ars Technica.) On October 18, they announced that in February they’d have an SDK, and Jobs had changed his tune: “We want native third-party applications on the iPhone.”

    It’s not realistic to compare the TIFF buffer overrun exploit in Safari to the open approach Nokia is endorsing. Developers shouldn’t have to hack their way into a platform. Nokia’s approach of digital signatures for authentic applications (which Jobs referenced in his announcement) is a lot more open.

    Admittedly, Nokia lives in a country where phones aren’t tied to carriers. But so does the rest of the world (with the notable exception of the U.S.)

  8. that’s great that apple is publishing iPhone’s APIs. but next time Seldon you should read the original post careful: US accounts for only 9% of mobile subscribers, and apple still believes that can lock consumers to one provider. openess and choice is what really matters, at least for the rest of the world…

    great post alistair! thx

  9. Few notes:

    1) Nokia is as proprietary and closed as the next company. They are just hedging their bets. Note for example, that the N810 does not have a cell radio.

    2) In Nokia’s native Finland, regulatiors force unbundling of handsets and network service, preventing the anti-competitive practices that the U.S. operators are “free” to engage in.

    3) Nokia should send Steve Jobs a big “THANK YOU” note.