Nokia has maintained a high profile at CES, announcing three new phones and deals with the likes of Skype, Yahoo and Six Apart. I sat down for a chat with Pekka Pohjakallio, VP of Nseries computers in Nokia’s multimedia division.
Besides giving Nokia’s initial response to the Apple iPhone, he also talked about the new N93i, N76 and N800, promised that Wi-Fi and 3.5mm headphone jacks will be standard in ALL Nseries handsets from now on, and hinted at a potentially-ace collaboration with guitar-maker Gibson. Read on for the full details.
“It’s 6mm thinner and 3mm shorter, and we’ve used premium materials to make it more comfortable to use and carry,” says Pohjakallio. “We’ve upgraded the screen to 16 million colours, and made the setup of Wi-Fi much easier than it used to be. It’s now active/idle, so there is a sniffer checking around for Wi-Fi hotspots.”
The basic form factor remains the same, with you twisting the screen in a camcorder stylee, and then folding it back on itself to watch clips. The Wi-Fi is important too, and it’s clearly becoming an ever-more important feature for Nokia.
“From now on, all the Nseries will have Wi-Fi,” says Pohjahkallio. “We believe more and more that when the internet is about participation, the creation tools we have on these devices fit into people’s desire to participate in Web 2.0 applications, as well as get at their email and browsing wherever they are. And Wi-Fi seems to be cheaper in many places than normal data calls. And of course it is also a tool for home integration, as there are lots of devices that you can connect to Wi-Fi.”
Then there’s the N76 (pictured), which if I was a cynical man, I’d label Nokia’s RAZR. It’s a super-slim clamshell phone with metallic styling, and according to Pohjakallio, it’s aimed at the demographic group Nokia refers to as ‘technology stylists’ (you may remember our post from the Nokia World conference explaining how Nokia segments mobile users)
“There’s an emerging group of people who are excited about the new technology, and don’t settle for low-quality, but it’s also very very important for them that the style is right and the materials are good,” he says. “So the N76 is metal, very robust and with a good premium feel to it, but still having all the Nseries use cases. There’s a two-megapixel camera, the new internet browser, and a music player with which you can use a normal 3.5mm headphones jack.”
Like Wi-Fi, 3.5mm jacks are going to be a standard feature in Nseries devices going forward, which is frankly about time for the mobile industry, given that so many music phones come with proprietary ports forcing you to use the bundled earphones rather than your own set. “We’re not going to have any proprietary jacks any more,” says Pohjakallio. I’ll raise a toast to that.
Finally, there’s the N800 Internet Tablet (pictured), which is the follow-up to the original 770 device, which Pohjakallio says was more of a device for “Linux enthusiasts who were hacking and making new code in the open-source environment”. The N800 keeps the widescreen format and Wi-Fi connectivity, and is basically about browsing, instant messaging and thanks to a deal with Skype announced at CES, VoIP calls too.
Is it a new gadget for people, or is Nokia trying to replace another device? “I think this is a new one,” says Pohjakallio. “It’s for those who really want to get the internet in a comfortable manner wherever they are. You have PDAs, but their main use case is something else. This has been done thinking internet first, and then adding other features if need be.”
Some of those other features are pretty neat, mind. Nokia has signed up Navicore to provide navigation software for the N800, and RealNetworks to get the latter’s Rhapsody music subscription service running on the device. Pohjakallio says the latter could be the dark-horse feature, suggesting people may use the N800 as an internet radio in their kitchens, for example.
“Because it’s open-source Linux, there’s lots of application development happening for it,” he says. “You will see a community building, developing applications we wouldn’t have even thought about.”
One thing I was keen to ask about was how Nokia is approaching the challenges of making smartphones that are supposed to do so many different things. Can one device really be as good at watching mobile TV, as it is at shooting video or taking photos, as it is at playing music or games, or surfing the internet? How do you prevent the jack-of-all-trades problem kicking in, where one or more of these areas suffer?
When it comes to devices like the N93, Pohjakallio says Nokia is taking the form-factor approach, of making sure that as soon as users pick it up, they know what its main use is (camcorder in this case), with the other features sitting behind. Which doesn’t quite answer the question (can those other features be as good if the phone is focused more on video). But he does say there’s an interesting challenge when it comes to more general handsets like the N76.
“You have to be really careful about what is important,” he says. “Our main areas are photography, music, video, TV, games and internet connection. They all have to be in a good level in these products when it comes to usability and performance, and then you can highlight one or two per product. It is a challenge, but we believe that we are one of the companies who have been thinking about what makes a good multi-purpose device for a long time now, so we are further ahead than some other companies.”
The last area I asked about was convergence with other devices. Particularly at this year’s CES, lots of the major consumer electronics manufacturers are figuring out how to make their devices work with other devices. Think TVs designed to display your photos, or hi-fis that connect easily with iPods and so on. Is this a big deal for Nokia?
Pohjakallion says yes, and cites design decisions like the 3.5mm jack as proof. TV-Out is also becoming a more important feature for Nseries handsets, while he also thinks the Universal Plug’n’Play (UPnP) standard will become more of a factor as home electronics devices come out that support it. Oh, and Bluetooth when it comes to things like cars, which increasingly have Bluetooth fitted in the factory.
“The surrounding world is very important, and the reason we think we have a strong position is that this is a device that is very personal, and always with you,” he says. “So it’s natural that stuff accumulates on here, and then you share it with other devices. And of course the PC and Mac connectivity is of the utmost importance, for storage and so on, as well as music synchronising.”
And it’s not just your normal gadgets either. Here’s a mini scoop for you: the morning of our talk, Pohjakallio rode to CES in a tour bus belonging to guitar firm Gibson, after a meeting with one of their bigwigs. Are we going to see a Nokia axe any time soon? Weeelll… who knows.
“They have the classical part, but lots of electronics are starting to be embedded,” says Pohjakallio. “They have a digital guitar, so they connect to the same places we connect to. So… yeah…”