Hurry up, Nokia: Your window is closing

This guest article was submitted by Chris King.


It's hard to believe it's been nearly four years, but back in 2005 something was introduced into the market that was revolutionary. At a time when the iPhone was just a pipedream and the mention of an iPod conjured up an image of a click wheel, Nokia set out to develop a small, touchscreen device called the 770 Internet Tablet. It was a strange move for the company, considering that this new device would not have any cell phone capabilities, and yet Nokia was then the largest phone manufacturer in the world.

Based on an open-source version of Linux called Maemo, the 770 was released in 2005 and suddenly became a favorite among Linux fans and those who had tired of their Windows Mobile PDAs. Its main draw was the landscape-oriented, 800×480-pixel touchscreen that came in at just below five inches, which was unheard of at the time, and it made using the Opera-based web browser via WiFi or Bluetooth a complete mobile joy.

But even with a few new models and upgrades to the OS over the next three years, Nokia has been struggling to keep up with the many new competitors over the past few years, including the rather large one from Cupertino. As we inch closer to the new Maemo 5 and hopefully a new hardware device this year, Nokia needs to get moving quick before the window that they flung open back in 2005 shuts completely on the Internet Tablet.

For those not real familiar with the history of the Nokia Internet Tablets, here is a quick and dirty rundown of the way I remember it to get you up to speed.

Nokia_770 After the 770 came out and went through a few OS updates, the N800 was introduced in early 2007, along with OS2007. The N800 had a faster processor running at 320MHz, dual SD slots, and a camera. In addition to the upgraded specs, Nokia freshened up the appearance of the N800 and did away with the slide-on, hard screen cover. Official firmware support for the original 770 was pretty much discontinued around this time, but there were "Hacker Edition" versions of OS2007 that ran on the 770.

Nokia_n800 Then about a year later, the N810 was introduced along with OS2008. This time around, the specs included a slider-style keyboard, internal GPS, and a screen better suited for outdoor viewing. The dual slots of the N800 were jettisoned in favor of 2GB of internal storage along with a MiniSD card slot. One significant milestone around this time was that OS2008 was fully supported on the older N800; in fact, the two devices are almost identical internally, and the processor of the N800 was unlocked to run at the full 400MHz speed with the new OS.

Nokia_n810 So OS2008 is where we stand as of today. There have been a few small updates, but the OS has remained largely unchanged for almost 18 months. Due to the open-source nature of Maemo, there are many users still doing great things with the tablets, but the hardware is becoming a serious limiting factor when facing the new kids on the block.

And this is what inspired me to write this article. I am a die-hard Nokia Internet Tablet fan, having owned all variations and currently still using my N800 almost daily.

Even though Maemo is open-source, there are a few commercial apps such as Skype and Rhapsody, and these are the ones I probably use the most on mine. The size of the N800 is perfect for me, not too large but not too small, and it is obvious that Nokia hit a sweet spot with the dimensions because devices such as the Aigo P8860 and even the new Viliv S5 have tried to keep similar proportions. Oh, and did I mention battery life? Usually a huge limiting factor in the true usefulness of many mobile devices, that is not the case here. The N800 and N810 can run for about 6-8 hours on average and standby for nearly a week.

But again, Nokia must hurry and address the hardware limitations of this device because not only are they now competing with the huge iPhone/iPod touch ecosystem, but with smaller devices that run full versions of Windows as well. And all of the aforementioned devices generally have more powerful processors and specs. Even though I can simultaneously run multiple apps on my N800 with maybe a stutter or two, the hardware is quickly becoming outdated. Flash 9 support was added a while back, but it may as well not even be there since sites such as YouTube and Hulu run slowly, if at all. In today's world, multimedia apps are king and not being able to use them will drive users to find alternative devices.

Debian I am pulling for Nokia on this one because, like I said, I am a long-time user of these devices. Even with the long drought between hardware refreshes, they are still very capable devices with a very strong user community. Over at talk.maemo.org (formerly InternetTabletTalk), guys like Bundyo, who makes the excellent WebKit-based Tear web browser, and qole, who has the very handy Easy Debian (see pic), have extended the usefulness of these Nokia tablets way beyond what they were originally meant to do. But it is up to Nokia to provide us with a device and an OS that can handle what we need to be able to do today in 2009. They have had more than enough time, and every day that goes by without a new device, they are losing the advantage that was so clearly theirs back in 2005.

So are there any other Nokia Internet Tablet fans out there? Chime in with your thoughts and suggestions on these devices.

Chris King (orbitalcomp) is a long-time handheld tech user, dating back to the original Newton MessagePad and then moving on to dozens of different devices over the years.  Currently, he finds himself surrounded by a multitude of touchscreen devices, including a pair of Fujitsu U-series, a Nokia N800, and an iPhone 3G.

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Pocketables is a US-based online tech magazine that brings news, insights, opinions, and comprehensive reviews on various mobile computing devices, portable technology, and related topics to a global audience. We focus on devices that fit into pockets of all sizes, from jeans and jackets to backpacks and purses. The gadget experts that comprise our staff produce high quality articles and original features colored with real-life use of products over weeks and months, not first-impression opinions formed within hours or days.

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