N97: a mediocre stop-gap solution or has Nokia lost it?

Nokia just announced the N97, its first flagship touch phone. The device is evolutionary, or if you prefer ‘marginally improved’ in some areas, compared to, its predecessors, the N95 and N96, while it includes a touch-screen and the new Symbian S60 5th Edition. The new phone seems largely irrelevant in the post-iPhone world and it is — at least — frustating to see Nokia so powerless and arrogant at the same time.

The company’s arrogance and indifference to the shift the industry has experienced, could very well spell the end of its dominance and the beginning of its gradual demise. Already, its once undisputed technical and market leadership has vanished, its share shrunk by competitors that entered the market much later than itself — Apple, the company behind the iPhone, entered the mobile phone market in mid-2007 and it has already redefined smartphones, with everyone, including Nokia, taking some of its cues in new products; that the N97 is a ‘touch’ phone could be considered proof that Nokia is indeed taking the iPhone seriously. Why it’s not more like it, is of the essence: is Nokia actively trying to avoid creating a clone, or is it just unable to do so? Given the inferiority of the N97 software and the superiority of its hardware, I guess the latter. Nokia can only make so much in a year or so.

The new N97 features Symbian S60 5th Edition that includes a touch-enabled UI. The UI, similar to that found in the cheaper, mid-range 5800 XpressMusic phone that came out earlier this year, is a mediocre bolt-on solution to the ageing Symbian/S60 platform that has become increasingly outdated in recent years and a cross between the earlier S60 interfaces coupled with Maemo’s look and feel. Indeed, the origins of Symbian, Psion’s EPOC32, are more than 14 years old, with the first Psion device, Psion 5 released in 1997. EPOC32 was excellent for its time, but a lot has changed in hardware and software since then, and while Symbian has certainly evolved since the 1990s, the fact remains that as a platform, both from a user and developer perspective it needs a lot of work, throughout the software stack, to be able to compete with the iPhone OS or — eventually — Android.

Even ignoring the iPhoneOS, or clumsy, surface-deep façades over Windows Mobile — as found in HTC products and the various releases of TouchFlo, Symbian has a lot to learn from its competitors. While there are aspects of its kernel (the EPOC Kernel Architecture 2) that are still exceptional and modern, the platform is obscure. Perceived application performance is poor, as is response to user input. Furthermore, the application experience is riddled by instability and mediocre resource use. Finally, there are obscure constructs, such as descriptors or the cleanup stack, that make development for Symbian somewhat esoteric if not downright annoying.

An institutional bad taste (the N97 UI, as is also the case with Android, reminded me of late 1990s design rather than late 2000s), large doses of egoism and a — still relatively — healthy profit may be the reasons Nokia is so bad at producing a device that’s truly going to compete with the iPhone and its competitors. In any case, the N97 is nowhere near to being an iPhone competitor, despite its hardware superiority and no matter what Nokia is trying to tell you in its promotional material. While disconcerting that Nokia could be so foolish so as to believe that this device can compete with the iPhone, I’m hopeful that they very well know that it can’t and are releasing it as a stop-gap solution until a much improved phone comes out. And that better come soon, if Nokia wants to stay in the game.

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2 Responses to “N97: a mediocre stop-gap solution or has Nokia lost it?”

  1. Panagiotis Atmatzidis says:

    The N97 has a Qwerty keyboard. There’s not much to care about the rest, I have resisted the iPhone so far, in order to find a valid alternative. I don’t think I’ll make till February without one, everything else seems old to me.

    And to tell you the truth, I don’t care about the hardware and most users don’t. Oh what a Phone the iPhone would have been if only Apple could follow a more “open” policy.

    Anyway, the N97 compared to the iPhone is nothing but a joke.

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