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…