Can Great Hardware Alone Sell a Smartphone?


The definition of a smartphone varies, depending on who you ask. Some think if you can install apps on the device, it’s a smartphone, while others claim it must have an advanced operating system. One company has steadfastly clung to its own definition of a smartphone, however.

According to Nokia (s nok), these are “converged mobile devices” and this definition is well explained today by Steve Litchfield at the All About Symbian blog. Litchfield makes a great case for Nokia’s definition, and I recommend the read, but convergence alone doesn’t sell devices. Consumers are looking for the best package comprised of hardware, software and a supporting ecosystem.

Take, for example, the many stand-alone devices that today’s smartphones can replace. Litchfield lists a watch, music player, camera, radio and navigation system. I completely agree with him, and in some cases, there’s absolutely no loss of functionality when using a smartphone for a particular feature. A watch tells time, perhaps the day and date and could even offer some advanced features like a stopwatch or alarm. And every smartphone I can think of replicates those functions perfectly well either natively or with a third-party application.

But the camera example offers a fuzzier view when it comes to convergence. As noted in our review, the Nokia N8 provides perhaps the best possible smartphone camera experience available today both for stills and for high-definition playback. In fact, this feature may be the crown jewel of the device because it can potentially replace any current point-and-shoot digital cameras on the market today. And for some N8 owners, I’m sure it will. Unfortunately, the camera alone — or any other single hardware feature, for that matter — won’t sell a smartphone because the primary use cases for the device are voice calls, the ability to access the mobile web and apps.

Those use cases are met by software features in tandem with hardware: consumers are using apps and hitting up the mobile web at an increasing rate while other activities are secondary. So while Litchfield says the photographs produced by Android (s goog) devices are “complete and utter rubbish” he may have a point when compared with the N8. But smartphone buyers have many different needs. With smartphone usage patterns focused on non-camera activities, the camera becomes a value-add for most, so does it make sense to sacrifice a potentially better user experience or more effective software to gain a superb camera that’s used occasionally?

Towards the end of his piece, Litchfield sees the point I’m trying to make, saying: “The solution, of course, is to have the best of all worlds. A ‘smartphone’ with all the electronic wizardry of the N8 but with the browser and ‘Sense’-integration of the HTC Desire HD. And add in the ease of use of the iPhone for good measure.”

At the end of day, a hardware feature that’s head and shoulders above what competitors offer will still only sell a device to those who most value such a feature. A better chance of success for today’s smartphone makers is to converge the hardware, software and ecosystem to create a mobile device that appeals to the broadest needs possible while allowing for acceptable sacrifices in functionality. Early adopters and tech purists may not agree, but when it comes to mass market adoption, the top-selling devices will make little sacrifices in various areas but still be solid all around smartphones.

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Where Nokia doesn’t market very well, is the performance of Symbian OS. This operating system is born from re-branding EPOC, a purpose built PDA operating system. Android and iPhone use custome Linux variants as the operating systems and of course, there’s Windows 7. These are essentially, stripped down, refined desktop or server operating systems. That’s why they need 1 GHz Snapdragon processors to function well. The problem with fast clock cycles in a processor, is power. They will drain a battery much faster than a slower processor.

So what the ultimate smart phone OS needs, is a small footprint that can perform better with slower processors. EPOC was the PDA operating system of Psion PDAs that had very little memory, or storage space. They ran Office suites, databases and had touch screens (see Psion 5mx) all back when smart phones were a pipe dream. This means the operating system was built to squeeze everything it could out of the hardware and storage, so native document sizes are smaller and it performs very well with low powered processors, giving it excellent battery life.


The N8 also has another big feature: it’s a five-band phone. It gives you 3G on AT&T, T-Mobile, and all European and Asian GSM networks. The hardware really is a winner. The software, however, not so much.


I guess it very intelligent of Nokia to latch on to a unique USP rather than create a android iOS clone. This not only helps it give some time to refine its offering to the global market but also give it volume in many markets where iphone is not selling in big numbers. S/w capability is something which can be redefined and I feel that it is OK to wait for it. From the connectivity point of view Nokia’s infrastructure arm is redefining networks with LTE and smartphone connectivity solutions and Nokia will have a compelling offering soon, N8 is just the beginning. I place my 2 cents with Nokia because of the huge distribution presence and brand loyalty Nokia enjoys in Africa, SE Asia, Europe. It takes one device to make a difference these days aka iphone, Motorola :-)


Millionaire executives who have a Leica as their “slumming around” camera, put too much emphasis on camera image quality.

…for us unwashed masses ( who can’t afford Leicas ), Android phones’ camera are “good enough”.

Mr. Litchfield argument is basically “Your Hyundai Sonata does not have the ride quality of a Rolls Royce, and is thereby a poor choice in daily transportation.”



And if he was just talking about one feature then it would be a fail. But he’s not, is he?

You may want to actually read the article next time.


“Consumers are looking for the best package comprised of hardware, software and a supporting ecosystem.”

Indeed. And that combination’s going to differ for everyone. To me the N8 is the best combination of the three variables, to others it’ll be the iPhone and to others Android, RIM, etc.

It’s a really simple point that a lot of tech blogs just don’t understand.

Brian S Hall

Since Nokia is losing the smartphone wars, maybe they can survive by focusing on hardware. They have no better differentiator than that.

As I wrote a few weeks ago, ‘it’s the software, stupid.’

Fact is, it comes down to software, apps, usability, content and ecosystem. Not hardware. Hardware can be copied. Experience, much less so. Nice that Nokia is out in front in camera mp for now, but the N8 still doesn’t crack the top 10 in my smartphone rankings.


Software is much easier to copy than hardware. You can have OS compile on many different architectures but you can’t get xenon flash or USB OTG or FM Transmitter or pentaband 3G unless you have the hardware. Anyone can copy anything…but then again there are patents. The N8 is definitely in my top 10. It is a phone that you can use without needing a PC.


“Since Nokia is losing the smartphone wars”

On what criteria? I think your judgement is a bit premature – Nokia unit shipments have jumped by over 60% YonY despite no presence in the US. Let’s see what Q4 2010 and Q1 2011 look like before coming to any firm conclusions. Please note I don’t expect anything meaningful in the US, it’s Europe and Asia that interest me.

As for experience, what’s more annoying: a slight lag in a homescreen transition or an unacceptable number of calls dropped or a battery that won’t even last a day?

Apps are also a red herring. All app stores will have the same key products within three to six months. The rest is just stuffing.

It’s a mistake to think everyone values the same things.


I agree, how you use it means a lot. The N8, as it is currently being sold in the USA, really is very different than most smartphones. I can imagine a copy of one of those Mac vs PC ads showing what the N8 can do versus any other phone. Camera with Xenon flash for good pics in any light. FM Transmitter so you can listen to your tunes over your car radio or over a friend’s car radio. Built in GPS maps so you have a GPS anywhere you go, without a data plan. A cheap pre-paid SIM or no sim at all will do the trick. Able to carry use it like a simple mass storage device so no need to carry files on a USB drive when visiting cusotmers or at work. Expandable storage so easy to add modules (like NFC testing for VISA). USB Host so easy to copy files from others flash drives and cameras without having a PC. HDMI out so easy to carry and watch movies while traveling or showing movies and such full-screen on a HDTV. High speed 3G data no matter what GSM network you choose in the world. It all depends on how you market it and how you will use it. I think that adds a lot of value but without advertising and subsidies, the only people who will buy the N8 in the USA are the people who will value it’s use and are tech-savy.


Depends, if we look at smartphones similar to the auto industry (several similarities there), we could see how some autos with better than normal handling, feel, speed, etc. have their niches and do sell well, and many times (like BMW or Porsche) can branch into areas where their halo effects the perception of other areas.

Nokia can take this route with the N8 (they haven’t), and using the camera, its a heck of a sales approach. That said, experience is the best selling point, and outside of Apple, and to a lesser extent HTC, there isn’t much of that being sold by mobile manufacturers. Therefore such a play can work – it wouldn’t redefine the smartphone, but like the Caynne or X5, could expand the ability to take Nokia’s halo to areas where normally they aren’t seen so favorably.

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