Mobile World Congress 2013 has come and gone, and we didn't see a Nokia tablet. I set upon imagining the Nokia tablet and what it would in reality be, and I got the feeling that seeing a tablet from Nokia is still a long way away. In this post I evaluate some of the difficulties Nokia faces in releasing a tablet and speculate features, forms and technological wow-factors it could come to encompass. At the same time, I ponder how Microsoft's Surface effort, as well as mismanaging Windows RT and Windows 8 might've messed with Nokia's tablet plans.
My impressions of the current situation on the market
Having a tablet to compete in the ever converging mobile space seems to be a must in the Western world. Not every consumer has a tablet, but just about everyone is starting to have a smart phone. At the same time people are moving away from traditional (desktop) PCs and ultra portables are becoming more popular. I understand this is the emerging market often titled as the "post PC market" that manufacturers are racing to capture.
At the moment the tablet market is dominated by two players: Apple with their iPads and Samsung with their army of Android powered Galaxy Tab devices. A lot of other manufacturers offer tablets, but only these two manufacturers have managed to sell tablets in the (tens of) millions. Apple's and Samsung's success can be explained by, well, having a tablet in the first place to sell, but also being first ones to offer a truly consumer-friendly tablet experience. Apple's "one-size-fits-all" approach with just one model a year is met by Samsung's "one-of-these-sizes-must-fit-someone" approach, which in practice means a plethora of Galaxy Tab branded tablets in all thicknesses and screen sizes and in just about all price points.
What then can be Nokia's angle with which to conquer the tablet market?
The operating system aboard Nokia's tablet will most certainly be one designed by Microsoft. As much as I'd love to fantasise MeeGo-Harmattan based tablets, in all honesty I think Microsoft's platform is the only viable platform (that is in existence and ready) that can handle tablet-device duties and is available to Nokia.
Rumours also have it that Nokia will be launching a Windows RT powered tablet. Some hoped it would happen at MWC13. Then we learned that Nokia had only done some prototypes that mostly tried out different form-factors for tablets, and that nothing had survived the process to become a final consumer product. Yet. I feel that if there's some debate over Nokia tablet's operating system, it revolves more around the question will it be Windows RT, or full on Windows 8.
Windows RT is a "simplified" Windows 8, with support only for apps that make use of the 'Modern UI'. Basically it looks like the Windows 8 app launcher that you can see when you press the Windows button in Win8. Biggest caveats in WinRT by public opinion seem to be: no desktop, heavy reliance on developers making 'Modern UI' versions of apps, and apps can only be downloaded from the Microsoft store. Right now the Microsoft store is pretty empty. I think Windows RT's real problems don't rely in the mentioned limitations, but that Microsoft's marketing hasn't been able to differentiate it significantly enough from Windows 8. People seem to regard it as a version of Windows 8, that's found on tablets. That's why they are dissapointed, when you don't have the full-power of the Windows desktop product, in a product that uses the Windows branding. Proof of the existence of this "Windows illusion" is in the fact that nobody for a second stops to criticize that Google based tablets only allow downloading from the Google Play store and iPads can only download apps from the AppStore. To me this is proof that people quite haven't wrapped their head around what Windows RT really is. A lot of this misconception is Microsoft's own fault though as they made some empty promises and gave out some misleading information relating to the operating system's capabilities.
Microsoft has failed in marketing it as a "streamlined tablet OS utilising functions from the Windows products" and instead its viewed as a "Windows 8, compromise edition. Half the features and half the functions you expect. And no legacy apps!". These misconceptions have made Windows RT an operating system with a frankly negative reputation, making the job for Nokia ever harder. Samsung is cancelling Windows RT tablet-PC hybrids in the US and countries of the EU because of low demand. It's becoming ever harder to see how Nokia's WinRT effort could turn this around.
I see some technical reasons why Nokia would be interested in using Microsoft's Windows RT on their tablet instead of the full-fledged Windows 8, though. Unlike Samsung and Apple, Nokia has little to no experience in the PC market. Nokia's Booklet 3G was a lick away from a disaster, so I bet Nokia is much more careful to not get burned again in a market unfamiliar to them. Should Nokia chose Windows RT, it would place Nokia's products closer to the expertise Nokia already has. Windows RT devices run on hardware very similar to those on smart phones and so Nokia could utilise existing partnerships. After-sales support is a lot more manageable when you can utilise your current support (or Nokia Care) chain you already have in place. In the times of the Booklet 3G, smart phones and computers were worlds apart in design and manufacturing costs. Marketing a tablet these days is similar to marketing a smart phone, especially if you can make the connection between the operating systems running on both devices. Booklet 3G's Windows XP was worlds apart from Symbian, and there was no real coherence between Nokia's smartphone products and the Booklet. Running full-fledged Windows 8 would again create a gap between Nokia's handset products and its tablet products. Naturally, also hardware requirements would be very different.
Physical form factor and hardware
Right now Nokia is having a great run in their physical designs of their products. Design award after design award has been won ever since the N9/Lumia 800 form factor and now Nokia's influence on design can (in my opinion) be seen also in other manufacturers' products. Suddenly we're getting devices and accessories with vibrant and brave colours, and not just those black, steel-gray or white devices. I trust no other company as much as I do Nokia in coming up with a truly unique tablet design. Just how they will do this is still unlcear for me, but I think the Nokia tablet that will end up being released won't be a ~10inch slab of glass and plastic.
Nokia could simply make a tablet that looks like a Lumia phone. I just don't think that this would be enough for the current Nokia. Microsoft's Surface tablet addressed this issue of generic tablet design by introducing a kick-stand to the device, colourful removable keyboards/protective shields and a MicroSD slot. If Nokia had been first to design a tablet with these functions, I feel Nokia could've A) brought some extra Nokia-wow to these features and B) marketed it much better. I also believe that Nokia would've looked more into actual user cases for the device, making its physical feel a lot better than the Surface. (By no means is the Surface a failed effort, however in my opinion.) Now that Microsoft has cleared the table with the Surface, I guess a lot of Nokia's ideas might've been sent back to zero. There's something about the form factors of the Surface tablet so Nokian that I wouldn't be the least bit surprised if it turned out that Nokia designed the Surface. So I find myself thinking, what else is very Nokian right now in Nokia's products?
Nokia's state-of-the-art imaging technology is what wowed us in the Lumia 920 and Lumia 720, and design is what wowed us with the Lumia 620, Lumia 520 and for me personally the Lumia 820. Other Nokia's strengths at this time are their location based services and their wide array of Lumia-exclusive apps. These features don't seem to me as selling-points for a tablet, though. I feel that for the tablet, Nokia must come up with a new technology or some new innovation, or else Nokia's tablet will just seem like a big Lumia phone.
One possibly less adventured development path would be the road of specialisation. By specialisation I mean that Nokia would design their tablet to do fewer things, but to do them well. A music-oriented device would be particularly interesting to me, and it would continue nicely Nokia's concentration with music. Nokia already has a Windows 8 version of their app Nokia Music, which could be the center-piece in their music-oriented tablet. The tablet would naturally have NFC to connect to the array of NFC enabled music accessories from Nokia (and JBL). The speakers on the device it self could also be top-class, but by this I don't mean big. Current ultrabooks such as my Zenbook has tiny speakers designed by Bang & Olufsen, that sound a lot better than traditional laptop speakers. The device would pack a lot of internal memory and be upgradeable with MicroSD cards for people to load with MP3s and video files. Bluetooth 3.0 or a similar technology would ensure that file transfer could happen also without wires. Spotify would be a good launch partner and would erase the bad memory of Spotify's lackluster support for Windows Phone. I believe a Spotify app is in the works for Windows RT. Physical design of this device could have "play/pause, next and previous track" buttons. Physically it could be a smaller 7" tablet, with the adolescent audience and women in mind. (Many probably don't know this, but even the N9 was originally designed to please the female audience. Turns out everyone loved it, so this could be a killer recipe.)
Another specialised tablet could be one designed for corporate use. It would have a webcam of great quality, and a great set of microphones for Skype calling. It would come with a deattachable keyboard of course, and Windows already has support for just about all Bluetooth keyboards out there. At launch Nokia would introduce a few of its own keyboards of course. The tablet would have wireless charging technology to make keeping all of your devices, including the tablet itself, running on full battery. The deattachable keyboard would bring extra battery life to the product and serve as a wireless charger. Microsoft's cloud-based Office solutions would play a key role here and be heavily present in the marketing. This tablet would also be every bloggers dream bit of kit to take to live-blogging events. Nokia would introduce at launch a few new auxiliary power solutions tailored for this device, but usable by other Nokia products as well.
Specialisation like this could be a way around the problem with Windows RT at the moment. Marketing Nokia's device as a strictly specialised product could take away from the illusion that Windows RT should be able to do everything Windows 8 does. It wouldn't even attempt to compete with "full" Windows 8 devices. Specialisation could also be the way to bring added value to people that have tablets now. I feel that Android and iOS based tablets offer only "more of the same" you've come to expect on those platforms in smartphones. Sure some apps make use of the larger screen, but in all honesty you're doing the same things on a tablet you're doing on your phone. This has been reason enough for me to conclude that I don't need a tablet. Specialisation could be a fresh new way out of the stagnated slate-inflated tablet market. It would also give a nice excuse to sell multiple devices of different purpoes to the same customer.
Nokia has some real strengths right now, making them the most viable Windows Phone manufacturer today. The Nokia tablet should have features we already enjoy about Nokia's current product portfolio: it should contain a wide array of Nokia apps we enjoy on the Lumias, it should make use of Nokia's location services and perhaps their imaging technology too. The tablet is a product that requires something new from Nokia however. It would need a new technology or a new innovation, but it should bring something new to the table in terms of how we use tablets. This is by no means a small feat and even with my idea of specialisation I don't think the picture is quite ready for a viable Nokia tablet. It's not only up to Nokia either. Microsoft have to do some extensive face saving with the reputation and perceptions around Windows RT.