InformationWeek was able to spend a few moments with Nokia's first Symbian^3 handset, the N8. Can it save Nokia?
In a word, no. At least, not by itself. But it could lead Nokia toward success once the company learns some hard lessons. Nokia is having trouble in the U.S. market for several reasons. The first is its unwillingness to play ball with the U.S. carriers, which are in control here. The other is that its handsets haven't found an audience with the general American populace. That's why its market share has slipped from nearly 50% a decade ago to less than 10% now.
Forget 2000 to 2007. Nokia spent those seven years botching up its relationships with U.S. carriers. Since 2007, Nokia has had something else to worry about: Apple's iPhone. Love it or hate it, Apple has changed how people perceive smartphones. While Nokia has always made good hardware (and still does, for the most part), software is now what really defines good smartphones. And Nokia's software stinks.
We don't have to look back more than a year, when the N97 launched with much fanfare. The device was to be Nokia's savior. Instead, it sank faster than the Titanic due to amazingly buggy software. The N8 that I saw today runs software that is nearly identical to that of the N97. Therein lines the problem.
The N8 hardware itself has potential, no doubt. Nokia has chosen a high-density capacitive display that looks great on the N8. It's bright, sharp, and crystal clear. The prototype hardware I tested felt a bit cheap and unfinished, but that is something I expect Nokia to polish up during production. The controls are easy to find and use, and the N8 is lightweight. It packs nearly every feature a power media user would expect, and impresses with its 12 megapixel camera.
The software, on the other hand is depressing. Symbian^3 is the the first version of Symbian that is being released to the market since Nokia bought and then open-sourced the Symbian platform. Given its deeply rooted foundation and appeal to developers, I expected Nokia's developers to make some advancements, especially given the increasing competition from Apple and Google.
Symbian^3 does offer feature and software improvements (camera, music player, video player), but the overall usability is indistinguishable from the current version of S60 5th Edition. That's not good. The fonts are the same, the icons are the same, the graphics look the same, the menus behave the same, and the learning curve is just too high. If there's one thing that Nokia really, really needs right now, it is a complete re-realization of its user interface. Sadly, that's not the case with the N8. Instead of demonstrating its developer prowess, Nokia has shown how backward-thinking and scared it is to move forward.
While Nokia cowers in yesteryear, Apple and Google are marching as fast as they can towards the future. That's not to say that iOS4 and Android don't have their own problems. They do. But Nokia has demonstrated -- once again -- that it can't change the way it thinks.
Nokia did mention that the hardware and software of the N8 I used today were prototypes, and would see further refinement before the device comes to market. That's great, but I don't expect Nokia to change the software completely.
The Symbian Foundation has said that Symbian^4 will break with the old versions of Symbian and move forward. It won't be ready until some time in 2011. By that point, I have to wonder just how relevant Nokia might still be.
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