Why I love Nokia’s internet tablets

The wild bunch at maemo talk know well by now that I’ve been a hardcore advocate of Nokia’s internet tablets ever since a fellow engineer quietly placed a preproduction 770 on my desk a few years ago.  I have been on a rabid one-man mission to promote the touchscreen tablets ever since.

At least, it felt that way in the halls of Nokia, where as a quality engineer I found myself the sole evangelist for getting the tablet technology into corporate and industrial uses.  This was a consumer experiment, I was told, and the product agenda was very limited.  The same applied, I soon found, to the size and scope of the hard-working Nokia developer team involved.

Frustrated by the narrow view inhouse, I found a more fulfilling role in the small-but-vocal community that sprang up around the 770.  The industrious Reggie Suplido started a discussion forum and blog at the domain http://www.internettablettalk.com (recently merged into maemo.org) and wound up attracting a loose and surprisingly large assembly of clever Linux developers who took to Nokia’s new and mysterious product line like ducks to water.  Above all else, there was a keen interest and passion growing around these highly-portable computing devices that I had not seen since the days of the beloved Commodore 64.

Nokia as a corporate entity was slow to embrace much less support the developer community very far beyond making tools available.  A handful of employees such as myself filled the vaccum on our own time, enduring a mixed bag of thanks for listening combined with heat on behalf of the company.  Our excitement over the product potential buffered us from the downsides though.  And when the retro-styled N800 was launched (I was a proud member of that team for the US), that excitement ratcheted up even further.  Surely the polish of this device meant that the experiment was over, and the real fun beginning!

Unfortunately such was not the case.  The N800 suffered a few shortcomings (such as video latency issues) that were showstoppers for the average consumer.  The out-of-box experience was another general disappointment; the products were touted by adherents as possessing vast potential but if the typical user could not engage such uses quickly and easily then for all intents and purposes they didn’t exist.

Compounding these issues was the fact that the next iteration, the N810, did not advance the hardware much and in fact some were quick to complain that aspects such as the reduction of expandable memory slots from one to two was a step backward.  Still, with its keyboard, the N810 teased people with the possibility that the devices were being platformed.

The latter hope seemed dashed when the keyboardless N800 was discontinued with no obvious direct replacement.  By this time the community was souring on Nokia’s communications and release schedules (both hardware and software).  That brings us up to today, where rumors of the next version focus on its inclusion of an HSPA radio, ostensibly for data access almost anywhere.

With the background established, I can get to my actual point: despite the missteps of Nokia with this product line, I still have to acknowledge that they have come closer to achieving a certain miracle than anyone else.  That is, in putting a low-cost tablet computer running an open source operating system into the hands of everyday users.

Yes, the products are not there yet.  Yes, Apple still outperforms Nokia by leaps and bounds in Bedazzlement 101.  But for all its faults and flaws, Nokia has come much, much closer to the holy grail of a highly viable, portable commercial product running open source.  Yes, Google’s Android holds the same sort of promise but I believe that Nokia has a shot here.  Google still doesn’t get the device space the way Nokia does [UPDATE: Google solved this in 2011 by purchasing Motorola].

The next variant has been a long time in coming, and I’m hoping that’s mainly due to a sincere desire by Nokia to Get It Right.  But bottom line, I continue to love the Nokia internet tablets because they dared to be different.  I just wonder now if I’ll be remembering them as a fond but brief experiment or the rough start of something with a grand future…

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37 responses to “Why I love Nokia’s internet tablets

  1. turn.self.off

    not just a reduction in slots, but a change of card type as well, to one that was maybe more in line with the rest of the nokia mobile product lineup, but resulted in a double whammy in terms of reduction of storage expandability.

  2. I also hope they Get It Right! I would buy n810 this second but it would be discontinued in a few months and the current software will not be supported anymore.

  3. What do you mean with “Google still doesn’t get the device space the way Nokia does.”?

    Google is not a hardware vendor and for now while the N810 is a great piece of hardware from the outside it still has some major problems (like missing 3D support).
    The true power of the Internet Tablets has yet to be proven by the successor.

    My hope are high, but given that the platform is a dead end (as Nokia will switch to Qt) I think the next device will have trouble to attract any more developers than the N810 has now and thus mainly live from sloppy 1:1 ports of desktop applications.

    • I mean exactly what I said. Google is not a device manufacturer as you say. Nokia has a *technical* advantage here in that they have the largest cell phone share in the world. Now that Symbian is released to the wild, that translates into largest share of devices running an open source OS. Google doesn’t have Nokia’s expertise and experience in devices, so it remains to be seen how ultimately successful they will be with Android. Now, some may point to the fact that Google is merely licensing the OS and has no need to even have that expertise and experience, but I maintain that this fact provides Nokia with an advantage. The issue is, however, execution… and in that respect I agree (and clearly acknowledged in this article) that they have stumbled, in more ways than one.

      So I’m confused by your comment to say the least…

      • Well, I guess it is obvious that Symbian is a dead end too – at least for high profile smart phones. Unless they do a major change in direction (which seems unlikely).

        I don’t think Nokias Hardware expertise will help here that much. Major new devices like the N97 have excellent hardware but most people agree that the software is just not acceptable.

        That said, Google has a big advantage as they developed a system from the scratch with modern UI and APIs in mind. They did not have to care about legacy stuff for example.

        That said, my point is that Nokia has a serious problem getting a modern operating system into the market. And as Fremantle is dead before it is even released it’s clear that Fremantle will not get any serious new supporters either.

      • Steven, it isn’t just the hardware expertise– it’s the popularity of Nokia in many regions and the company’s huge presence/penetration.

        Cynics keep pedantically focusing on Nokia’s screw-ups, few poor-performing products and US market decline as if they represent the norm. Nokia’s OVERALL success belies that.

        The question here, of course, is whether the Maemo products can and will overcome an awkward start. Again, though, the problems and failures are a given. They’ve been covered an nauseum. All else is speculation at this point. You’ve just chosen to be much more negative than I am and that’s fine. We’ll see.

      • Update: recent reports show that Google is struggling with reverse logistics for its Nexus One. Not unexpected… ;)

  4. Hey Texrat! Nice to see you blogging up the right tree again! Nokia has to get it right this time, plain and simple. The replacement to the N800/810 has been a long time in the making. Hopefully for us and them, the Maemo5 device(s) are amazing. One ‘stone unturned’ in your abbreviated tablet history is the dropping of the Elephanta release of Maemo, and how some think that could have also meant a device pass-over. I guess we’ll never know, or will we?! ;) Keep the articles coming!

    • Thanks EIPI!

      I will of course continue to cover a broad series of subjects, but the tablets (and Nokia) remain dear to my heart and when I feel the urge I will write about both.

      I’m ramping up coverage now in anticipation of a new device announcement, hopefully soon. No, I have no knowledge. ;)

  5. Some doubts I have regarding the next Internet Tablet.

    Will Nokia be able to launch it at a correct price ? If the price is too high a will again become a niche product.
    Will Nokia be able to sell enough Tablets to further invest in the product. Currently, I am the only owner of a Nokia tablet in my family, within my friends community, … and there are much more iPhones, Ipods, netbooks, etc. Let’s say, a not-tech-related consumer has still never heard about these Internet Tablets.
    Will Nokia still be able to attract enough interest from the developer community ?

  6. Zeeshan Ali (Khattak)

    Would be nice to know who “I” is in this whole blog entry. :)

  7. Nokia announced the launch of the n900 during july for asia.
    The time is short, now! I’m expecting this device with great impatience.

  8. I’m a newbie, I bought my first NIT, a N800, last week. But I was already in a deep love for it for more than a month.

    This week I’ve been admiring the strange reactions of all my friends and colleagues to the device. I don’t think anybody liked it! Everybody seems to spot something “wrong”. Everybody cares too much for the multi-touch thing, and accelerometers, GPS… I won’t say I dislike these, but I really don’t think it would make much of a difference in my life.

    It’s all just “bells and whistles”. What is important is voip, file storage, playing songs and movies and downloading podcasts. Having a wifi device that download my podcasts automatically changed my life. I’m not sure tutti-touch screen would change my life much, and I can buy GPS and a bluetooth phone the day I can afford it. Today, the N800 was just right for my income. I wouldn’t be able to afford a N810.

    The N800 is great, but looking at the N810 and the newer phones, I am a bit afraid Nokia will “sell out”, as any company should, and aim just for a competition with other expansive phones instead of trying to establish a culture of cheap NIT for the masses… It’s already hard to explain people what a netbook is all about. The NIT is even worse. People can only see it as a “bad iPhone”

    Personally, N800 already revolutionized my life for better. Just like Linux did for me. But I’m not sure it will ever get popular.

    The future I would like to see for NITs is Nokia realizing they can create a poor man’s tablet. Nokia is already very different from Apple in that sense: while Apple restricts itself to the high-eng market, Nokia has products like the glorious 1100 phone, which is given away for free by phone companies.

    I see people buying iphones for vanity, but using a cheap NIT in their daily lifes… That would be great. But I suspect they won’t be following this line. The fact Freemantle won’t run in my “new” tablet seems to indicate that for me…

  9. The N810 is the best piece of hardware I ever bought and I’ll be all over the N900, as long as it has a keyboard.

    To me the N810 is the perfect IM device, the perfect web companion while watching TV/movies and almost the perfect ebook reader (lacking the ability to display protected books). After a year and a half this still has me using the tablet for several hours every evening.

    All I truly wish for in the N900 is HSPA and a smoother interface/better multitasking. That’s enough for me to shell out another SEK4000.

    Funny/sad thing about the N810 is that the one thing it truly does way better than any other device is the same thing it does worse than most, ebooks. I find the size, form factor and display to be perfect for ebooks, but there’s not a single shop that supports the device afaik which is super sad. With the ebook reader market severely lacking in Europe I believe it could’ve found an audience as a reader here.

  10. Dennis Swendra

    Texrat, funny how I had just posted my “how much I love my N800″ at Maemo.org/talk when you had simular thoughts here on your very informative blog. Thanks for the link. (Den in USA)

  11. I happened to come across your article while I was browsing around
    the site on my N810. I just had to drop in my two cents because as an
    IT guy thats always been osx and windows oriented, the N810 I got
    made me take the plunge into unix and I’ve had it well over a year now.
    Having a fully capable teathering device is really nice and I still keep it
    in my laptop bag with a full charge and a backup battery (Only other thing
    that has backup batt. is my BlackBerry). Ya I’ve got a G1 and an iPhone
    (still not a fan) my BB is obviously my best friend but the N810 makes a
    great companion. Having it around has made life a lot easier juggling this
    instead of a netbook or laptop is great for RDC and VNC when your
    running around configuring and connecting routers and running cable,
    its my SBS console in my pocket the way I explain it to friends and clients.
    Being a fan of the communicators I was really happy with my N810 because
    it was different, different in that nokia took a chance on a device segment
    that haden’t yet existed but has been sought out before, like the communicator
    series I mean who else do you know that has a phone that supports fax over
    CSD (Yes Nokia people used the Fax on the communicators and we love it),
    actual point Nokia’s introduction of Open Source NIT has effectively broadened
    the user base, ie. a lot of the unix guys I’ve met seem to really like the potential
    of the platform the more open source devices out their the more creative the
    community can get as a whole with open source platform development
    I mean look at what you get out of N810 and then go check the specs.
    of some of the high end winmo devices even the older and low end ones
    its not that mobile computing power hasn’t been around, but the form in which it takes. Take my comment with a grain of salt but I mean at the end of the day MY
    N810 will always have a special place in my bag at least until the N900 comes out…

  12. Great post; and really good to see you place the IT/Maemo end into the right perspective. In terms of what the web needs to read about Maemo, you might be the best voice out here. Do keep it up.

    Personally, the IT has influenced my recent purchase of an N97 (yes, I know its Symbian and not Maemo, but I need a gap filler for the moment). The idea of a malleable system, that also takes the idea of mobility and keeps it a blank canvas is one area where Nokia can have some incredible success. Its up to them to bring that, and other areas together though. Hopefully, devices forward will do that.

  13. Nokia’s internet tablet experiment never got the traction or backing that it deserved. With Ubuntu Mobile, Moblin, the rumored “Apple Tablet”, and Google’s partnership with HTC, it’s an increasingly crowded space that Nokia is playing in.

    I don’t expect the Nokia N900 to be the savior that NIT fans expect in the US. Google and HTC did the right thing by partnering with telecoms in the US. With Google’s resources and commitment, Android seems to have (or “will soon have”) a larger userbase and better development community than Maemo.

    I want to love my Nokia N810 WiMAX, having stuck by Nokia through the N800 and N810, but it remains a “toy” (albeit “learning toy”). Unless I have the resources to keep buying toys, my next internet tablet likely won’t be a N900 but an HTC running Android.

    • Your comments are the most discouraging, Ken, because I remember how high you used to be on the products…

      • I still enjoy the products, and I still follow the Maemo community, but I fail to see how they’ll reclaim or compete against a maturing market with dominant players such as Google/HTC. Nokia’s alliance with Intel may be a smart move, but I remember Nokia’s alliance with XOHM thinking the same thing.

        Sorry to sound discouraging, but I think it’s realistic. The N800 is late to the party against mature products.

  14. *N900, sorry. Typed wrong number on earlier comment.

  15. Reading more, seeing more pictures of the RX-51, and following freemantle development, I’m excited about what I’m seeing. My love of the new RX-51 is being tempered by what I experienced with the N810 WiMAX and what I see now on the market competing with the RX-51. I decided to touch on my thoughts at:

    http://www.latheofdreams.com/?p=1204

    I really would like to see the RX-51 succeed, but it’s hard to imagine it’ll be a breakthrough when it’s competing with the iPhone 3G[s], Google Android, Samsung/HTC, and a growing market of MIDs, tablets, and netbooks.

  16. Pingback: Opening up to Open Source « Tabula Crypticum

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  18. Well, I guess we know the answer now to my last statement…

  19. Pingback: Maemo, MeeGo, Mango and Me | Tabula Crypticum

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