Saturday, May 28, 2005

People connected

Martin Geddes - Telepocalypse

I don’t normally rave about new products, particularly ones I’ve never even used, but the new Nokia tablet just leaves me gobsmacked. Yes, it’s just a cheap little computer in a pretty wrapper. But it seems to be almost exactly what I’ve been looking for.
There are many times and places where I don’t want to take a laptop with me, but I need a subset of its functionality. A basic problem of laptops is that as the form factor becomes more portable the fragility and cost increase. I don’t plan on going on a canoe trip with a laptop just in case I need to react to a client email. A cell phone is inadequate, though. I need to do more than just “communicate”; I need to be able to close a receive — inform — react — express loop. Get a message; assemble the information I need to process it; formulate a response; and communicate that response. The cell phone only does #1 and #4 well.
In the home a laptop or PC isn’t always the right thing. You just want a really quick piece of information; to check what time that flight is supposed to leave, etc. This is a “third place” device (after “home” and “work”), but that third place could be in the non-traditional parts of both home and work. Again, the cell phone or smart phone doesn’t do a good job.
I could never persuade myself in the tax-free stores in the airports that I’d really be able to work with a tiny weeny PDA screen. (It doesn’t do “inform” or “express” well enough.) A $50 backpack for my bulky laptop was a lot cheaper than a $3000 ultraportable notebook PC or a $750 PocketPC paperweight. So far I’ve been stuck with just one option.
The 770 is also significant because it partially separates connectivity from the hardware. Obviously, you need to provide your own Wi-Fi signal. You’ll need to use a Bluetooth modem to work on a cellular system. But it springs Nokia free from the design and distribution constraints that the carriers usually impose. Or as El Reg puts it:
It’s an open platform, and unlike its phone range, there’s no built-in DRM or similar shenanigans to cripple the user experience. … The 770 will be available through general electronics retailers or direct from Nokia’s website.
These two things are not unconnected. The smartphone market is somewhat of a poisoned chalice to handset makers. The more features there are the greater the likelihood some meddlesome operator will want to break or customise them, ruining your already thin volumes and fragmenting your base for developers. The operator urge to make smart networks peppered with toll booths, and use device subsidy to push people towards higher-charging monthly plans, reduces the perceived value of the product to the public and re-allocates the profit pool towards the carrier.
The 770 is an attempt to break this cycle, and recapture the value of the “smarts” that a smartphone would offer, but in an enlarged form factor that is cheaper to make, better to use, and potentially offering high margins. I view the 770 as a “form factor buster”. Instead of trying to expensively and badly cram functions into a smartphone, take a basic cellphone for voice and data connectivity, and then use an extension box for the extras that has the benefit of working in the home, too.
Constrain the handset innovation with a smart network and complex pricing and the innovation goes elsewhere. I look forward to more devices that signal to the market “this is what we can do when the handcuffs are taken off”. Yes, this one’s a niche product; but you can imagine plenty of other kiosk, point-of-sale and portable systems that don’t fit into the handset mould appearing on the market.
How much value will be left in those expensive mobile carrier-owned retail stores if the best devices start being distributed via other channels? How come a hit personal, portable data and media-centric device like an iPod doesn’t fit into the distribution network of a mobile carrier? The stores scream “we sell stuff that meets the sales needs of Vodafone and Cingular to pay for their network”, rather than “we sell stuff that meets your user needs when you’re out and about”. Supplier-centric, not user-centric. Not an obvious model for retail success. Where’s “The Mobility Store”?
The 770 does get it wrong in two areas. Firstly, the battery needs to last way longer if this is to work away from home as well as in it. If the device needs some extra bulk to do it, so be it. Secondly, the storage sucks. Bursting the cellphone limits at the very least means adding an SD or CompactFlash interface. Whacko memory card formats need not apply. Leaving high-capacity storage out of the base device is defensible; not having the option value of adding cheap mass storage is not. I also wonder about the tablet vs. clamshell. The nearest competitor is Sharp’s C3000 Zaurus. Clamshells work better on the road; tablets in safe and secure environments.
That means the Mk. 1 product shouldn’t be expected to be an immediate runaway success. Get some learning on what works and how people use it, ramp up the volumes, and a $200 Mk. 2 version is the one that will fly off the shelves.
I’d hope that the 770 works seamlessly with a Nokia phone, although experience of cullular genereally leads me to be less that optimistic. Cross-provisioning should be a trivial affair, with address books, photos, email addresses, etc. all shared with no user effort. A 770 owner should always be better off with a Nokia phone.
Bluetooth headset; Linux OS which already runs Skype — it’s a trivial port; great screen; adequate UI for “inform” and “react”; cell phone for backup voice calling and connectivity. Sounds like a winner to me. I’m ready to leave my laptop at home for everything except the composition-heavy tasks.
Gee, I want one.
Full disclosure: I have a financial interest as I have done consulting work for Nokia and hope to work with Nokia again in future. Nonetheless, these views are mine and aren’t bought by anyone.
UPDATE: I wrote most of this article 2 days ago but was too busy to tidy up and post, and since then Om Malik and Russell Beattie have given their verdicts.


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