Sunday, December 20, 2009

A few words on the N900, the iPhone and on life in the mobworld

At the moment, discussions around the latest mobile devices always spiral towards one point, and that is the comparison of the new devices to the Apple iPhone. The N900 is no exception as it has been revered to be “an iPhone killer” long before release, even when the only information available for the device were the (rumored) specifications.
In this entry I will comment on this discussion and compare the two devices somewhat. I will not, however attempt to crown one of the two devices as king, but maybe find something that both devices could learn from each other.
The N900 and iPhone are somewhat similar when comparing technical specifications. They both pack the ARM Cortex A8 600MHz under the hood and both phones can be found with 32Gbs of internal storage. The iPhone can also be met with only 16Gb on board. I think this is where all the similarities between the phones end, however and this is my key point about the discussion whether one phone is better over the other.

Growing worlds apart
Just by looking at the outer physical features of the phones draws a great divide between the two. The iPhone is slick and smooth and has a certain kind of hipster feel to it. And we all know it certainly enjoys this kind of status as well. Simplistic design with only few details: the chrome ring around the phone and the sole physical button at the bottom of the phone. [image]
Looking at the N900 you see a very different shape: it is thick, covered in black plastic and out pops a physical QWERTY keyboard with more black buttons onboard. There’s no exceptional design innovation here, the N900 is more a collection of successful outer features from previous Nokia phones.
I think the reasons behind this difference are because of one thing: the phones are designed for as different purposes as their design implies.
The iPhone enjoys the attention of people also not so interested in mobile technology and having the latest devices, where as the N900’s key selling point is to woo crowds that want absolute customizability and power over their device. For the N900, the applications that can be found in the repository are very different in nature when comparing to what can be found on the App Store. There are applications for word processing, viewing MS Documents and Excel graphs, applications for showing your phone’s CPU’s load and handling your internet connections. Sure, there are some games, but they don’t come close to the entertainment value that apps from The App Store deliver.
I think this begins to deliver a clear picture that the N900 is more work-orientated, where as the iPhone leans more on the entertainment side of things.

The philosophy of killing
Like already mentioned, discussions on latest hardware always include new devices being “killers” of older devices and as a result phones that have been proclaimed to be “the iPhone killer” are later found whimpering, forgotten and irrelevant filling the landfills in a land far away. The kind of thinking behind this kind of philosophy of killing would imply that in the end, only one device can win the battle. Realistically thinking, this kind of thinking is believing in an impossibility, as people have as about as many different needs as there are different devices. No one device can ever fully satisfy everyone and I’d even dare say that therefore no device can ever fully satisfy anyone. You’ll always find things about your device that you’d like to be different or be already aware of features that are missing from your selected device.

In all fairness, it’s not fair
From now on, I will be taking a bit of a defensive tone favoring the N900 for a while, but bear with me until the conclusions section.
In my view when it comes to comparing the iPhone and the N900, a key point that’s presented as being against the N900 always includes the availability of applications for the device, or namely the amount of applications for the device. Unsurprisingly, the N900 doesn’t match the competition in this section. I understand the need to compare the amount of apps and I think it derives from two things: one, the N900 was marketed as a device that would have nearly unlimited support from 3rd party programmers as it was based on the open-source Maemo platform. Two: the survival of modern mobile devices depends heavily on how active the user base of the device is, i.e. does the device receive unofficial updates and applications.
To me it is incredible that even respected unbiased (?) professional magazines and other media  can begin to compare the two devices without any sympathy for the N900’s age. Depending on who you ask, the N900 is only about a month old at the time of typing this and yet in tech reviews the device will lose points for not having as many applications as other devices on the market. Sure Linux is much older than the iPhone OS, but it doesn’t automatically mean that every program every made for Linux will be automatically ported to Maemo. I think that a more unbiased approach to comparing any two mobile devices would be to determine which device has most functionality out of the box instead of comparing only user bases with no regard to how much time these user bases have had to develop.

Motion blindness
Here’s another thing that always has me cringing when reading tech reviews and that is the short memory of the fruit fanatic. People seem to forget, that to get the iPhone to meet modern standards of smart phones took three to four (depending on where you live) releases of essentially the same product and therefore for some, three to four purchases of the same product. Perhaps Nokia can be criticized for not coming up with sufficient amount of new features for their new devices, but why then is this policy of intentionally releasing outdated technology only to have something “new” to release in the next generation device so widely tolerated? Nokia phones have packed pretty much everything ever included in mobile phones in almost every new smart phone category device since 2005. The N900 is technically nothing new either, the same 5Mpix camera and GPS etc. features and functions were found already in the trendsetting N95.
It is strange how people can think on one hand that more is more and yet think at the same time that somehow this doesn’t have to apply to the iPhone. They are happy with their iPhone 3G(S) and yet will find for eg. Sony Ericsson devices sporting the 1GHz Snapdragon processor “a Nokia killer”. Somehow it seems like ill-logic to me.

Another lesson learned (aka pre-conclusions)
There is, however something that both devices can learn from each other. I’ve talked perhaps more about where Apple can learn from Nokia before, so I will try not to focus on this too much anymore here.
So for example, Nokia could learn from Apple about user experience. Apple’s device is fun and easy to use and ever since day one has been optimized for finger-control only. This is a bold and decisive decision that aided I’m sure in the design process of the iPhone OS and applications that would later follow. Nokia, however decided to fidget somewhere in between stylus and finger-control and didn’t really even optimize their “touch screen” version of the S60 UI for, well touch based operation. The S60 5Th edition looks just like previous editions of the OS, only that you can now use your finger to operate the phone. This is something that should’ve been done the other way around.
Another thing that Nokia could focus on in the future is cutting down the amount of products in their line of smart phones (at least). Most new Nokia models have had a feel of immaturity to them, possibly due to Nokia being hurried into releasing devices to counter the competition. The 5800 Xpress Music was the first example of this. Like representatives from Nokia have said, Nokia has only been reacting to competition when as a market leader they should be creating the competition. Apple on the other hand decided to go with one mobile device only and therefore the iPhone has most probably enjoyed the undivided attention of its developers, thus resulting in such a finalized (and stable) end product.
Apple is also often criticized for its control over the device with creating strong ties to operators and Apple itself. Sometimes control is good, for example when making sure that there is no duplicate content in the device’s app store, or when making sure that no app duplicates the functionality of what’s already present in the device. Sadly, even the Maemo repository already includes applications that duplicate the phone’s basic functionality. Who knows though, if these apps were created already before the release of the device?

To tie the ends together I will say that the N900 is not an iPhone killer, but for the same reasons the iPhone won’t be a N900 killer. Both phones have their own strong points and weaknesses that can be thought to be fixed in the other device. I see the N900 as a powerful phone for business and the iPhone as something that is more about entertainment. Therefore comparing the two devices is like comparing a hammer to a pair of scissors; both have their own job to do and you can’t do with scissors what you’d want to do with a hammer and vice versa.

Peace on earth.

© Christopher Peake 2009

Sources and additional reading:

No comments:

Post a Comment