Anyone ever watch the 1990 movie Crazy People? An advertisement executive (played with nutty magnificence by the late great Dudley Moore) cracks up under the stress of lying to people for a living and ends up in a mental institution. At some point he enlists the aid of residents to help him create marketing campaigns after the bluntly-honest-but-hilarious ads that landed him there become popular. You can read the wiki article to get an idea of the results, but watch the movie if you can to get the full effect. Other than some bad acting by Darryl Hannah, it’s cute.
Why am I recommending films to you?
Because when I think of Nokia’s flagship N8 smartphone, I think of how well it would fit into one of these crazy campaigns. I can picture a sharp photo of this beautiful handset on a blank background, accompanied by pithy captions like “The Nokia N8: Quirky But Cool” or “Cover the Logo and Everyone Will Love It”.
I write that last one only half in jest, because I truly suspect that Nokia’s now-uncool brand is doing more harm to this product than any aspect of the product itself.
There are plenty of reviewers eager to climb onto the “Symbian Sucks” bandwagon and trumpet the UI failings. And they exist. I used an N8 for a week courtesy of WOM World Nokia and certainly had my share of WTF moments. Thing is, none were major. Every one was a very minor inconvenience, and some have been since corrected by quick updates.
My own history with cell phones puts me at odds with the big league reviewers. I had never really used one prior to 2005, when Nokia hired me to ensure their quality (I was told my ignorance would aid in objectivity). My first phone was a Nokia 3000-something, and the next one was an N80i, so to me the Nokia Way was the only way. I found S40 and S60 both incredibly easy to navigate for a novice. They fit the crazy way I think, maybe. So when my mom handed me her Motorola Razor (remember them?) one day, I was stumped. I couldn’t even make a call without instructions.
The point is that ANY device user experience is going to have its idiosyncracies. If you favor one strongly or have limited experience, every other UX is going to feel like failure. That doesn’t excuse the perplexing approach that Nokia took with Symbian touchscreen devices– some N8 functionality feels buried, and finding certain features should see the user rewarded somehow. And there are parts so counterintutive that if you don’t access them often enough you will quickly forget they’re even there, much less how to engage them. That said, my oldest son has an N8 and Just Uses It. Easily. Contentedly.
Call performance was great. Audio was great. The feel and weight were perfect for me (I like a solid phone). I did encounter two serious issues: the first N8 I received from the Nokia Developer Champions program would not work at all, and the second has a flaky battery that has twiced refused to take a charge (solution: place phone in ziploc bag, place package in freezer for ~4 hours, remove and thaw. Funny, but fixed).
But bottom line: it really isn’t bad.
Not the hyperbolic End-of-the-Earth bad that some detractors would have you believe. Nowhere near the “unusable” epithets ladled on so gleefully by biased reviewers encamped in competitors’ fields. Quirky, yes. Maddening, occasionally. But cool, always.
And why not? The cool starts even before the unboxing. Nokia has been working hard at minimizing packaging. The N8 comes in just about the most efficient box possible. It takes up about one-fourth of its predecessors’ volume. So chalk one up to environmental responsibility.
Then there’s the N8′s camera. I shouldn’t even need to mention this legendary appliance. 12 megapixels of Xenon-flashing goodness. There is no competition.
And despite the odd interface aspects, they lie underneath a beautiful touchscreen where black is truly black, even under our white-hot Texas sun. It is a pleasure to stroke.
As I noted in comments on yesterday’s article about Nokia’s balancing act on the make-or-break margin, it’s become cool to bash Nokia these days, kicking a downed dog for offenses that are forgiven of other competitors. It started off warranted, because Nokia had indeed grown fat and complacent on steamrollered victory, but has now reached a point of pointlessness.
If the N8 had been an Apple product, there would have been some grousing over the omissions and silly stuff, and it would have stopped once the charismatic Steve Jobs convinced everyone that the emperor still had clothes. There would have been updates promised, and delivered. But that success at public relations magic is to Apple’s credit, even as I disagree with the common and disingenuous “you’re holding it wrong” aspects. It’s hard to argue against the results so aptly demonstrated in Apple’s rising profits.
But Nokia doesn’t have Steve Jobs. They have Stephen Elop, who’s still struggling to master the gift of persuasive gab. When I drill down on Nokia’s troubles, I can’t help come away thinking that they really come down to a need for clear, strong leadership combined with a clear, compelling message. The UI and branding parts are starting to materialize… now if only the leadership can instill confidence in customers and stakeholders. The difference would have made the N8 a must-have device for 2011 rather than a phone we love in secret.