The Case of the Phantom Tablet

In the past several years we’ve seen many companies offer up their vision of The Next Big Thing in personal computing.  The goal to get PCs increasingly portable is one admirable attempt but any drastic changes to the interface status quo tend to be met with consumer resistance.  Screens and keyboards can only get so small before they become cute but useless novelties.

One exception is netbooks, the currently most compelling segment of portable personal computing.  These little-brother laptops are rapidly cannibalizing more conventional computing platforms.  Their attributes of low cost and high portability combined with a reasonable attempt to maintain usable interface real estate has contributed to a truly impressive success story.

But there’s another niche with supposed potential that’s also gaining favor with the press: Mobile Internet Devices, or MIDs.  Intel coined the term to describe a handheld computer not quite phone, not quite laptop or netbook, but their definition is being co-opted to describe a broader array of products.  Enter Apple and rumors that they are preparing their own assault on this mostly virgin territory.  In this article plenty is said about Apple’s supposed designs on this space, along with involvement by Samsung, Microsoft, Amazon and of course Intel, but curiously missing is mention of the company that essentially created this platform:

Nokia.

That’s right, the Finnish company that once brought you rubber boots, tires and more recently sexy mobile phones introduced the Nokia 770 Internet Tablet in mid 2005 to very little fanfare.  The small but powerful touchscreen device caught on with early adopters and especially the Linux crowd (due to its Maemo operating system) but never really enthralled the public at large.  Nokia later acknowledged this to be part of a methodical strategy, where successive releases of products in this line would exhibit increasing abilities and support as the market was explored by the world’s largest cell phone manufacturer.  The 770 was followed by the N800 and N810 (2 variants) and the next iteration is in the works.

I won’t hash over the various steps and missteps of Nokia in the development of this product line; my main motive in writing tonight was in reaction to the obvious neglect in the article.  Are journalists just not doing their homework when covering this subject?  Has Apple truly managed to convince the media that only their products matter?  Did Nokia lose in the court of mass marketing by opting to move so conservatively into this nebulous space?

The answer will likely depend on the push Nokia provides the next tablet, and the effectiveness of Apple’s enviable public relations machine… and there’s more certainty around the latter than the former.  Rumor also has it that Nokia is readying its own netbook.  Slow economy notwithstanding, 2009 may turn out to be an interesting year for portable computing…

7 responses to “The Case of the Phantom Tablet

  1. Hmm, I’d not seen nokian900.com before. Do we know who’s behind it? The link you link to seems to be full of brand new information which hasn’t been seen elsewhere. This suggests it’s a) got brand new sparkly information we should be excited about or b) it’s wrong.

    http://maemo.org/community/council/community_highlights_for_december_2008-part_i-january_2009-part_ii/ is a similarly dated but much more authoritative doc.

  2. The nokian900.com site is registered to ‘Ionel Florin Negru’, presumably a frontname.

    Nice to see you on the tablet scene again Texrat.

  3. Thanks EIPI.

    And as for the Nokia900 site, I debated linking to it but went ahead and did so out of curiosity. I will likely change the link.😉

  4. “Did Nokia lose in the court of mass marketing by opting to move so conservatively into this nebulous space?”

    I think it’s a lot more complicated than that.🙂

    Apple is basically a high-end tech company with its main market in the USA, with secondary markets in other rich countries and no real presence in the developing world.

    Nokia is basically a high, mid and low end tech company with its main market (i.e. the bulk of its sales and profits) in emerging economies such as India and China (those are its top two customers now). Even before the iPhone was announced, Nokia made more money from their African sales than their American sales, for example.

    If Nokia was going to enter the touchscreen market, it was important that they made the devices and their operating system workable even on cheap hardware (possibly including non-touch hardware too). That’s pretty much what they’ve done with Symbian S60 5th Edition, it should work on phones from practically every price range. The S60v5 interface can be used without a touchscreen if necessary which would allow it to be used even in the lowest-end hardware.

    The iPhone by contrast isn’t easily scaleable like this, it assumes too many expensive features (multitouch capacitive screen, expensive monthly contract with unlimited internet etc) which simply aren’t in most people’s price range when looked at globally.

    It’s interesting to watch the situation in India, where the iPhone has had disappointing sales while the Nokia 5800 has set new records for touchscreen device sales.

    Unless it changes the interface, Apple has painted itself into a high-end rich-world corner. They don’t have any obvious way to reach the majority of phone customers who buy hardware with an unlocked value of $150 or less (the iPhone’s unlocked value is $500 to $600).

    This is true of the iPod too, and music player sales in general aren’t anywhere near those of mobile phones because they assume too much expensive equipment (a home PC and a CD collection). The iPod and its rivals get a lot of coverage in the rich world press, but that market is very much a niche when looked at on a global scale.

    The only truly non-niche items of electronics are probably the mobile phone and the analogue radio. The reason they’re so widely purchased is because they’re cheap and they’re totally self-contained. You don’t even really need access to mains electricity to use basic phones and radios because even the smallest generators (including hand and solar chargers) are easily good enough to power them.

    Rich world tech journalists tend not to think about the developing world, but sales are sales are sales, and if Nokia’s phones sell well globally then their shareholders won’t care what the editor of Wired thinks.

  5. Having worked for Nokia I’m a little familiar with their business model and scope. 😉

    But your response to the question is right on target and I appreciate you taking the time.

  6. شكرا شكرا

  7. Kamel, got a translation for that?😉

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