Nokia: from a bright past to a dim future?

A few months ago I bought a Nokia X3-02 “Touch and Type” cellphone, and I’m sorry to say that I’m disappointed with it. I’ve been gradually let down by it over time, and in the end, it’s just not what I’d hoped it would be. In the store, I was dazzled by its small, thin design (I love thin phones). I loved its metal shell as well. It felt the proper weight as it sat in my hand.

After I took it home, I started to see the defects. This was a brand new phone mind you, and already one of its clamshell latches (on the back) refused to close properly. And the more I used its touch screen, the less I liked it. I’m accustomed to working with quality touch devices like the ones on the iPod Touch, the iPad and the Magic Trackpad. The touch screen on the Nokia X3 is just not as good. It feels like a sad, cheap imitation of a great original.

Granted, this is Nokia’s first touch-and-type device, as they say in their intro video for the phone.

But they have other touch screen devices in their product line-up. They’ve had time to perfect their touch screens. Why launch a phone with an inferior touch screen?

Once you ask that question, then you have to ask a bunch of other questions as well:

  • Why are they using so many versions of their operating systems on their phones?
  • Can they come up with common design elements and aesthetics on their phones, to make them seem like they’re part of the same product line-up? Because right now, if you were to look across the whole Nokia line-up, you wouldn’t know all the phones are from the same company unless you looked at the logo.
  • Can they reduce their product line-up to something more manageable? Why have a gazillion phones? What’s the point of that? I understand the need for targeting products at various audiences and at different price points, but do you need tens/hundreds of phones to do that? Why not have at most 10 phones in the line-up?
  • Why launch the phones with lackluster features? As an example, the X3 has a 5 megapixel camera, but it’s a sad facsimile of the 5 megapixel camera on my old Nokia N95, which was launched in 2007. And there are less in-software options available on the phone, so it’s even harder to get better photos out of the camera. It also doesn’t have a flash.

Another thing I quickly discovered about the X3 is its annoying sleekness. Normally, a sleek phone is a good thing, but somehow, the X3 has the annoying characteristic of being very likely to slip out of your hand. You’re afraid to hold it by its top half, because you’ll press the on-screen buttons. You can’t hold it by its lower side, because that’s where the keypad is. So you hold it by the sides, but they’re rounded and thin, so the phone slips right out of your hand and falls to the ground. To its credit, it’s pretty sturdy and unless it’s going to fall on bare concrete, it’ll probably be fine, but the design was not well tested before it was launched.

Another problem which I discovered, and I’m not sure if this happens on just my phone or on all the Nokia X3 phones, is a software bug that lets the built-in @Mail application access the internet when the phone is on a WiFi connection, but will not let it access the internet over WAP or GPRS. I’ve sent the phone in for service and it remains to be seen what Nokia will do with it (if anything).

I can’t help comparing the phone with my Nokia N95, which as I mentioned above, was launched in 2007.

I bought it in 2008, brand new, unlocked, and have been using it ever since. I’ve used it, by my count, on four different mobile networks, one in the US and three in Romania. It worked just fine on all of them, did what it was supposed to do and it has served me well. I’ve recorded more video and shot more photos with it than I remember, and some of those videos and photos came out quite nicely. I still use it today, though it’s now my backup phone.

The N95 is Nokia at its best (for its time). It was compatible with a ton of cell networks, was even capable of 3G speeds, could use WiFi networks, had a 5 megapixel camera with a built-in flash, a ton of options for manipulating the photo software, recorded video at 640×480 resolution in stereo sound, it could play music and movies, it had Bluetooth, Infrared and USB 2.0 connections, it could use MicroSD cards, it had a second camera for video calls or video conferencing and best of all (for me) was the ability to sync it with my Mac using iSync and tether it to my MBP via Bluetooth.

The only things I didn’t like about the N95 were its operating system, which was (still is) a bit wonky, and the incredibly expensive apps (at the time) on the Nokia (now known as Ovi) Store.

Fast forward four years, and what has Nokia done since then? The software for their phones is still wonky and still looks the same, I’m still confused about where to find certain phone or system options when I look for them, their new phones still only have 5 megapixel cameras (some still sell with 2 megapixel cameras, like my wife’s new C3), most of their phones record almost unusable 3gp video with crappy sound (the X3 is a prime example) instead of mp4 or mov files, and I’m sure I could keep adding to this litany of complaints if I tried. Meanwhile, other phone manufacturers are doing unbelievable things with their phones.

One other thing comes to mind: Nokia Maps. In recent years, Nokia keeps advertising this app and the fact that their maps are free, but what they fail to mention is they’re not really usable. Sure, the maps are free. You can download them from the Nokia website at any time. But the maps are no good without an extra internet option on your phone’s monthly plan, and more importantly, you also have to pay extra in order to get the driving instructions (the voice guidance files and the step-by-step turns). So really, all the maps are good for is to give you general guidance about your whereabouts. But they won’t tell you how to get to your destination unless you pay more. Sure, you could futz around with your mobile phone, zoom in and out of the maps and eventually figure out how to get there, but that’s not going to be possible if you’re driving.

To be fair, I haven’t used today’s equivalent of the N95, which would be the N8 (or the E7). How much do you want to bet the Maps app has the same shortcomings on those devices as well? They’re supposed to be better. Unfortunately for them, they’re still using the Symbian OS, which from my experience is wonky and ill-organized, as mentioned above. I’ve heard Nokia plans to launch a new smartphone this year that uses a new and better OS. We’ll see how that works out.

There is a saving grace for Nokia though. Do you know what my favorite phone right now is? I’m using it and I love it. It’s the Nokia E63. Yes, I know it’s old, and it’s actually a hand-me-down phone (I bought it for my wife about 1 1/2 years ago), but I love it.

It’s got a surprising amount of options (if you keep digging through the OS screens). The camera is only 2 megapixels and the video camera only records at 320×240 pixels, but as far as the rest is concerned, it has the same options as my Nokia N95, and it has the incredible bonus of an actual keyboard. Of course, I can sync it to my Mac, just like the N95 (and unlike the X3, which still has no official sync plugin).

I never realized until now how useful an actual keyboard is on a phone. Sure, the virtual keyboard on an iPod Touch or iPhone is nice, but there’s something wonderful about pressing actual rounded buttons. I was so frustrated with buttoning on keypads and using predictive text (which sucks for anything other than simple messages). Now I can easily send emails and text messages from my phone at any time. It’s made my communication so much easier!

As a matter of fact, do you know what our current phone line-up is? It’s this: a Nokia E63, a Samsung Ch@t GT-C3222 and a Nokia C3. Notice something common across all of them? They all have keyboards. I think the Nokia keyboards are better designed. The buttons have rounded edges so it’s easier to press them. But there’s no mistaking the productivity gain from having an actual keyboard on a phone.

So what’s the point I’m trying to make? The point is this: phones with keyboards are awesome. Nokia should focus on them. If they’ve got to use their kludgy old Symbian OS, then simplify it and put it on nice phones with nice keyboards and nice cameras. That will work well and won’t disappoint. And if Nokia’s bent on imitating Apple and putting touch screens on their phones, they should work on the quality of those touch screens. They should make sure they’re just as good or better than what Apple’s got. I know that’s a hard standard to beat, but if they shoot for that, they’ll probably end up with 80% of what Apple’s got in terms of touch screen functionality, and that’ll do just fine.

I’ll end on a final note, with a pet peeve of mine. If all these phones from Nokia have Nokia Maps and access geo satellites, why in the world aren’t they geotagging the photos I take with them? This has been bothering me ever since I bought the N95. It started as a nagging wish on the back burner, but now it’s a full blown pain in the derriere kind of thing. The iPhone’s doing it. Now consumer-grade digital cameras, cheap ones, come with built-in GPS chips. Here Nokia’s had this in their phones for 4 years or more, and they still haven’t bothered to do it right. It’s not even a hardware upgrade. It’s just a software upgrade that checks for an internet connection, goes out, gets the geo coordinates when the camera app is activated, and applies them to the photos. And if there’s no internet connection, then the photos don’t get geotagged. How hard can it be? Sadly, this is yet another example of Nokia’s inefficiency.

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Author: Raoul Pop

Entrepreneur, consultant, filmmaker, photographer and watch collector

6 thoughts on “Nokia: from a bright past to a dim future?”

  1. Hey,

    if you want to get rid of that x3-02 phone let me know. I am after a network-free latest S40 phone to be used for development, so if battery is worn out or something like that I could not care less. Let me know, thanks

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    1. What I can tell you is that it’s locked, it’s on Orange, and I’m currently trying to get it fixed or replaced because the built-in Mail application doesn’t work over 3G, only over WiFi. It’s now been sent in for its 2nd repair. It really is a subpar phone, it’s very hard for me to have anything good to say about it.

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  2. Perhaps i was not clear either. X3 really is superior by s40 standards. why make it as nice and smooth as the n95 when there still money to make from that s60 / symbian 3 high end line ? There currently are 2 cows to milk, and 2buckets to fill. you are suggesting nokia to keep both cows, but keep only one bucket. which is wrong from business standpoint. 🙂

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    1. Wrong from a business standpoint but right from a consumer standpoint, and it seems Nokia should want to cater more to their consumers when they’re losing them.

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  3. Say woot ?
    Comparing two separate lines meant for totally different budgets will never lead to any overnight convergence between the two lines. They are separated by about 10 years regarding technology and/or first release date. The only (noticeable) thing about the new X3 is that it runs the new S40 6th edition firmware which includes support for touch screens as opposed to S40 5th which do not.
    Why so ? Because it can be done within common sense limits and keep the phone in its low end sector where all the rest of S40 phones are and because it brings something new highly sought after by Nokia’s marketing team.
    However, it is still a crappy S40 phone which can only run apps of no more than 2 MB (and another 1MB if they used I-dont-know which data storage facility). Mind you, these phones are quite nice as long as Nokia pays the developers for bringing apps to them.

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    1. I know the two lines are different, and I know they’re meant for different budgets. The point was (and I probably wasn’t clear enough) that after all these years, the features from the N95 should have trickled down to its cheap sibling, the X3, but properly. They have, but they’re inferior. Given the rate at which phones evolve, these features should work just as well as they used to work on the N95. They don’t. So why launch phones with inferior features, particularly if your market share is decreasing? Why not focus on launching good phones with good features?

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