I started this guide to choosing a phone not long after Nokia announced their game-changing deal with Microsoft. It seems fitting to conclude the series with the first fruit of that alliance.
Was the wait worth it? Yes. Not, alas, because the new Nokia phones are perfect. It would be wonderful to be able to say your phone-choosing dilemmas were all over, but there is still a way to go. They should be the last major development for a while though, so we know now what the real choices are.
And they are very promising. A few months back Nokia brought out the N9, their first phone with the Linux-basedMeeGo operating system. It was a thing of beauty, with a genuinely novel all-touch interface and a unique body moulded and milled from hard polycarbonate and curved glass, but it seems certain now that the operating system is a dead end. It was pleasant if not wholly unexpected therefore to find that their new Lumia 800 is in many respects just a Windows Phone 7 version of the N9. (See them compared point-by-point here).
Or rather, Windows Phone 7.5 – the Nokia is one of the first phones with the new version of the Microsoft OS. And its greater polish, in combination with the the hardware refinement Nokia bring to the party, make the Microsoft system seem for the first time a credibly sexy alternative to iOS and Android.
This phone isn’t going to blow the iPhone 4S or the Galaxy S II away though. Its gestation has taken a long time, and consequently it isn’t right on the cutting edge when it comes to specifications. But I think it will be the first Windows phone to have real mass-market appeal, certainly in Europe. It’s different and eye-catching. In the US Nokia will need to find the good relationships with carriers that have eluded it until now, but with Microsoft at its back that seems eminently possible. Rumour has it indeed that they’re holding back the Lumia 800 so that they can launch with a version capable of using LTE (that is, 4G) on AT&T or Verizon’s network. That would quickly correct the impression most Americans have of Nokia as a maker of only low-end phones.
So though the Lumia may not quite be a world-beater yet, it probably does enough to put both Nokia and Microsoft on track. It lags way behind both Android and iPhone in terms of apps, but going a long way to counter this there’s a huge amount of excellent stuff built right – Office 365, Nokia Drive, XBOX Live, Bing Vision. And the interface, particularly in its bright and curvy Nokia incarnation, is very arguably better than even the iPhone’s. It’s certainly prettier. Would I buy it? I don’t think so. It’s delicious looks sorely tempt me, but I’ll wait for what they’ll come out with next. If they can get back onto the front line of hardware specs we will have a real three-way battle here.
But you should forget Nokia if you want a smartphone right now? No; don’t forget Symbian. Nokia’s previous operating system may have been around for a long time but – unlike MeeGo – it’s not about to go away. They’re still improving on it (the latest version is called Symbian Anna) and there are a great number of apps available. Yes it seems clunky and awkward alongside its younger rivals, but its maturity means there is damn all it can’t do. And if battery life is a high priority for you, a Symbian with a keyboard is probably impossible to beat.
Perhaps as early as next year you will be able to run Windows on the same sort of low-energy ARM processors that iPads and phones use. Interesting.
What exactly is the point though? By itself, Windows for ARM doesn’t change a lot. All the programs that we use on Windows were written for Intel chips. They won’t run on ARM. They would have to be “ported” to the different architecture, and there’s no guarantee that a heavyweight program converted for a nimble processor would be anything you’d really want to use. Apple didn’t get where it is by simply porting Mac programs to the iPad. Garage Band, to take one example, is pretty much a wholly new version written to take full advantage of the touch interface.
It will be up to the market to create the software that really suits ARM-based Windows, and that of course depends on the platform taking off, which depends on the market… The Catch-22 of new technologies. Microsoft can seed it for success, but a huge amount of the detail still remains to be seen. It will surely run many Windows Phone 7 apps, but will it be able to take on the full-fat version of Office? (Rumours that it already can are probably based on an Intel tablet demo.) What about all the software created in Microsoft’s .NET framework? In Java?
Will it even have a desktop? This may seem an odd idea – Windows without a desktop? But in Windows 8, the desktop has been demoted to the status of an app; just another program, rather than an integral part of the operating system. Instead, the default interface of all Windows versions will be Metro, the “live tile”, highly touch-orientated look pioneered on Windows Phone 7. It’s all about fast and attractive access to information feeds. To do traditional work, with one or more heavy-duty application program running at once, you first open out a desktop. So it’s at least a possibility that the ARM-based version of Windows will only run lighter apps purposely designed for the touch interface. I am sure that “heavier” Intel versions of Windows will run those too though; Microsoft wants touch to be ubiquitous.
At the moment, leaving aside special-purpose and older versions, there are basically two Microsoft operating systems: Windows 7 and Windows Phone 7, and in most respects they’re distinct, incompatible things. In the near future though there could be a pretty continuous spectrum of Windows 8, over not two but four distinct types of device:
Phones that can run lightweight touch-based apps.
Light ARM-based tablets that can run the same apps – and some traditional software?
Full Tablet PCs that definitely can run traditional software as well, but are still totally touch-orientated.
Laptops and desktops that have an optional touch interface.
Hopefully they should all blend well so that data (and perhaps apps) move from one device to another seamlessly, even by touching them together. One can turn to the device suitable for your situation – a phone for walking, a desktop for work, a slate for sitting back – and find little changed about the user experience other than the size of the screen. It’s easy to see that merging very gracefully with “Surface“-type touch- and object-aware furniture. It’s as interesting as Windows has sounded for a very long time. Perhaps ever.
A few days ago I suggested that Nokia’s lovely N9 might be the last as well as the first phone to use the MeeGo operating system. Now it would seem that speculation is confirmed. Well, it is if you want to go by a single short article in a Finnish daily paper, but that’s the sort of scrap of information people are grabbing at – particularly people in the MeeGo development community, who of course are desperately invested in this.
It isn’t true. Not on a literal level at least, because there are in fact two MeeGo phones. And though the N950 will be available to developers only and not the general public, why would they be releasing a phone to help people develop apps if they don’t plan to have anything to run them on? I think CEO Stephen Elop means only to counter the opposite rumours – that the good reception the N9 received was going to make Nokia switch back to MeeGo as its main strategy. That was only ever a fantasy.
I strongly suspect however that Nokia plan to keep MeeGo going as a little back-burner project – much as it was until quite recently. Remember, MeeGo is not a new thing but just the latest in a line of semi-experimental products based on Linux: the 770, N800, N810 and N900. These were never big sellers either, but Nokia is a company that has done well in the past by fielding a range of niche products.
Is there any point in buying one though when, no matter how good the hardware is, it lacks the ingredient that makes or breaks a phone in the world today; If MeeGo isn’t going to be a commercial product, who’s going to make apps for it?
Well they don’t necessarily have to. Don’t forget that all software for Symbian phones – which are going to be with us for some years yet – is actually built for Nokia’s Qt framework, also used on MeeGo. Maybe Symbian apps haven’t exactly set the world on fire, but good recent phones like the N8 have revived them somewhat. Then of course, under the MeeGo skin the OS is basically Debian Linux. The Open Source community will be able to provide many heavy-duty applications, just as are currently available for Nokia’s earlier Linux devices.
And, it has Java. OK, big whoop. Java on phones has always been a should-have-been. Except… Android apps are basically Java, aren’t they? Running on a version of Linux too. With that similar basic structure, it should be fairly easy to port Android apps to MeeGo.
Easy, or even trivial – if an application that rejoices under the name of Alien Dalvik fulfils its promise. This is not an emulator; it allows Android apps to run natively under MeeGo. Now that would be something; the vast supply of Androids apps, on mobile Linux, on Nokia hardware. The user would have to assemble it themselves I guess, but they’d get a combination that could easily rival the official Windows product. The only question, I suppose, is whether it will be allowed to happen.
There’s no argument, the N9 is a beautiful device. It’s almost hypnotically attractive, better perhaps than even the iPhone at the magical trick of making you feel that this is how phones were always meant to look. Sculpted from curved glass and a single block of matte polycarbonate, graced with a simple, powerful new operating system, this is the most radically restrained design that Nokia has ever produced. Aesthetically, that is; from a feature viewpoint it’s downright exuberant. All in all, a tour de force of phone engineering.
Only one question really: What exactly is it for?
This is not the first of Nokia’s new Windows phones, rather it is the first with MeeGo. First, and quite possibly last. For MeeGo is the operating system that Nokia were developing to take on the iPhone. Until they lost their nerve, decided it couldn’t possibly be done in time to save the company, and let themselves be bought into Windows Phone 7 instead.
And yet here’s a MeeGo phone, somehow ready before any Windows one. What exactly happened there?
It had to be this way. If the Windows device had come out first, MeeGo might have been allowed to drift on without ever becoming finished product, and MeeGo was the one chance Nokia’s designers had to prove to the world – and to their boss – that they could have taken on Apple and won.
Launching an already doomed product might seem a bizarre expense for an already beleaguered company, but not bringing MeeGo to fruition also had a price – one that might have been paid in resignations. The N9 may best be understood as a magnificent gift; from Nokia’s management, to Nokia’s talent.
Let’s deal first with the fact that there are two kinds of Windows phone. Microsoft got into the smartphone business early on by adapting the OS they had created for PDAs to be phone-capable. This ran mobile versions of their Office applications, designed to integrate seamlessly with a workplace PC. Useful to some, but of little interest to the general public – especially as the intentionally desktop-like interface makes it the least finger-friendly OS available. The latest version of this is Windows Mobile 6.5, and you are not likely to want it unless you have specific business needs.
Appreciating that the iPhone had changed the game completely, Microsoft came out – surprisingly quickly – with a whole new OS. They started afresh, with one eye firmly set on a pleasant user experience, and the result is an interestingly different interface made up of ’tiles’ that both indicate the status of and act as shortcuts to services like e-mail, SMS, Facebook and calls. Argument will rage over whether it is aesthetically appealing, but it is clearly highly usable.
What else does Windows Phone 7 have? Pretty much everything the iPhone does actually, including an integrated market for music and video downloads. But though this may make it seem just an imitation of the Apple product, a Zune to their iPod, it does have some real advantages. Microsoft are better at games. Each Windows Phone 7 device is a little gaming console, connected to their Xbox Live service. And of course they have taken care to retain their key strength: mobile versions of the Office suite of apps.
So it’s like an iPhone but with some great advantages. Where’s the catch?
Well the big one: it’s not finished. Aside from the fact that there are far fewer apps yet than for iPhone or Android, it’s lacking features that fans of the old Windows Mobile or of Symbian take for granted, like full multitasking, video calling, VoIP (Skype, etc.), cut-and-paste, or tethering (using it as a broadband modem with a laptop).
Intriguingly, similar features were also lacking in the first iPhone. So it’s expected that they will be added fairly quickly. But unless you are a business user with a pressing need for Microsoft Office, it might be better to wait and see what happens. Things should really get interesting when the first Windows Nokias come out next year.
But if you are a business user – or if you just fancy a touch of that urban professional chic – you’ll also be considering the BlackBerry. Manufacturer RIM first made it big with those two-way pagers that send and receive text messages. (Remember them?) This genetic inheritance shows in the fact that BlackBerries as a rule sport full qwerty keyboards and are designed to integrate with your corporate email system. They’re trying to escape the business ghetto too though; the number of apps available is shooting up, and they’re advertising on TV. But for the general user it’s hard to see any real reason to prefer it over its rivals.
Except one: BlackBerries can make an unbroken encrypted link all the way back to their home base, wherever in the world that is, preventing any possible interception of communication. Which is why some governments have banned them as being far too useful to spies and criminals – or to dissidents.
Which, you have to admit, is cooler than most.
Well that’s the businessy stuff. Tomorrow let’s look at phones we might really buy.
When you buy an advanced smartphone, the choice is less about the manufacturer than it is about the operating system (OS), the software framework that manages the phone and its apps. Each of the contenders has its way of doing things, each its benefits and pitfalls. Right now, you basically have a choice between these six:
Android – On an ever-increasing range of phones, most notably those from HTC and Samsung.
iOS – Apple’s iPhone (As well as the iPad and iPod Touch)
Symbian – Particularly on Nokia’s high-end phones, but also ones from Sony Ericsson and various Japanese manufacturers.
Windows Phone 7 – Currently found mainly on phones from HTC, but should be appearing on Nokias later this year.
Windows Mobile – On many devices, again perhaps most notably those from HTC.
There are a couple of others like HP’s WebOS and Samsung’s Bada, but these are the ones you are likely to meet. How then do they differ – and where do they excel? We’ll begin, later today, with the more business-orientated. You know, the ones you can justify buying by pretending they’re for work.
Yesterday I speculated that the smartphone market could devolve into a straight fight between Apple and Nokia-Microsoft. This would depend of course on people actually liking what the latter two companies have to offer. If they manage to combine the best of what they can do, the results should be impressive. But will they? Until the first phones come out, which will be October at the very soonest, we can only wait with bated breath. Windows Phone on Nokia has a lot to live up to.
Or perhaps, to live down. At a stroke, this deal effectively eliminated not only the world’s most popular smartphone OS, but also a promising alternative.
There were reasons for this. Symbian, with its pedigree stretching back to the very first handheld computers, was unwieldy when compared to the radical interface-orientation of its new rivals. To take one example, an operation as trivial as creating a screen icon for a newly installed app required digging down through menus within menus to find one called, of all things, “Standby Mode”. That just wasn’t good enough anymore.
To deliver a slick modern experience, Symbian needed to be drastically rebuilt. Nokia dithered about this, working on both an improved form (Symbian^3) and its slated successor (MeeGo) in parallel. And so ended up with one system that was serviceable but unimpressive and another that was impressive but unserviceable. Meanwhile, Apple and Google were eating their market share alive.
But there was another company that knew its smartphone OS needed to be replaced, and it pulled the trick off with surprising alacrity. This of course was Microsoft.
The case for simply adopting the software giant’s solution seems compelling now, but few predicted it. Even when former Microsoft executive Stephen Elop became Nokia’s CEO last September, rumours that he planned to move his old office furniture in with him seemed merely mischievous. Abandoning their own OS development would be a move Nokia could never take back, and so lead to almost irrevocable dependence on a company that had up till then been a bitter rival.
It was only with the recent leak of Elop’s harsh memo that the hints became impossible to ignore. In it he used the metaphor of a “burning platform” – as in, you don’t jump into the cold ocean until you realise your oil rig is on fire – to illustrate just how drastically Nokia needed to change. But the language was hardly even coded; platform in computing terms means the combination of hardware and operating system a program runs on. In fact Nokia had only recently rebranded Symbian as the “Symbian Platform”. The writing was on the wall for an OS that, with its roots in the Psion Organiser of the 80s, is almost a cultural artefact.
But it may be missed by more than just a few sentimental geeks. A mobile OS from the start, Symbian was designed with security and frugal energy demands as priorities, and decades of development have given it considerable depth. Too much perhaps, if you’re trying to find a particular facility within its maze of menus, but there is little you might want a phone to do that isn’t there. And this includes many features that are not yet in Windows Phone 7. Well-loved old ones, like tethering, swapping data cards, full multitasking, compatibility with a vast range of media formats. New ones well in advance of its rivals, like USB On-The-Go which allows you to connect a phone directly to flash drives and hard disks.
Features that may never return if, like the iPhone, it is developed primarily as a system for delivering services and digitally managed content. Unless much happens between now and the first Nokia with Windows, former Symbian users may consider it limited and disappointing. Don’t be surprised if they dub it the No-Win.
This is an article I wrote on the Microsoft-Nokia deal, and to some extent it reworks material in earlier posts. If you’ve read those you could skip this. If you’ve heard enough about the damn deal already, you could skip this. I wouldn’t blame you. I’ll put up something else less techy later.
Over the last few years we have enjoyed astonishing innovation in the smartphone field, with competing systems from Apple, Nokia, Google, Microsoft, RIM, and more. A technology market has rarely been so open to all comers, certainly not since the home computer explosion of the early 80s. It’s been an extraordinary time.
And now it’s over. The partnership between Nokia and Microsoft probably signals the end of the expansive phase and the beginning of shake-out. But this may not be a bad thing. In one view they are the dream team to create a credible third force in a vital market. That should improve competition, drive up the creativity and drive down prices. From another it’s a dinosaur wedding: When giants get into bed together, they push everyone else out.
Are we to be offered fewer, better choices – or simply fewer?
A “third ecosystem”, as Nokia CEO Stephen Elop calls it, means a third major platform for app developers, far more likely to succeed where Microsoft and Nokia individually were lagging. Almost certainly, it also means a second giant media delivery system alongside Apple’s iTunes, and far greater penetration for Microsoft services that mainly rival Google’s.¹ Between them, Nokia and Microsoft have just about every angle covered.
Which, interestingly, would put them on a similar footing to Apple. Google suddenly looks like a weaker player here. With no real hardware of its own, and with little control over what people do with its open-source Android OS, they risk seeing their app market become fragmented into various flavours and their name dragged through some appalling hardware. Close integration with the desktop version of Windows should make it a compelling tool in the business segment too, putting severe pressure on RIM’s Blackberry.
This then is the danger: The market shrinking to just three, perhaps only two, real players. It would be particularly sad if those two turned out to be old stagers Apple and Microsoft.
Though on the other hand it means one rival fewer for Google Maps, as both Microsoft and Nokia have products there.
Microsoft is in a tough position, though, too. Win Phone 7 isn’t selling for crap right now, and they have no actual tablet strategy. As computing rapidly moves to tablets and smartphones, Microsoft becomes less and less important. It isn’t hard at all to imagine that 10 years from now — and to a certain extent in just 5 — the only people who will need desktop-class computing will be those in science, engineering, and the people making software for all of the tablets and smartphones and such.
If even they need such things, since tablets (especially down the road) make perfectly great front-ends for truly powerful computers off in the cloud somewhere.
If I owned stock in either company, I’d sell all it tomorrow.
I think Microsoft have more strategy than you allow, Matthew. While it seems highly unlikely that they’ll ever reattain the dominance they once had, they remain surprisingly nimble for such a vast company. Nobody expected them to come out with something as good as Windows Phone 7 in so little time, and though it isn’t selling yet it is early days, especially considering that there are two established competitors. This deal will certainly make it seem a lot more credible.
It’s not clear to outsiders yet of course, but elements of an integrated desktop-tablet-phone strategy seem to be materializing out of the mist. On one hand, Microsoft has happily been selling software for tablet devices for almost ten years now. OneNote, which I use every day, is actually available for the iPad. (Free for the time being too.) Widows 7 is by far the best OS available for a more heavy-duty class of tablet orientated towards content creation rather than consumption.
It’s the consumption that the new market is all about though, and here Windows 7 devices, with their greater energy demands, weight, and cost, are obviously at a huge disadvantage. It’s a no-brainer to bring out a version of Win Phone 7 tweaked for bigger screens just like iOS or Android was. Some think that Microsoft don’t want to do that because it will compete with Windows 7 on tablets, but I doubt that’s the case. I think we’ll see it just as soon as MS thinks the time is ripe. That is, when there are things ready to sell on it. The phone will lead the way just as with the others.
Alongside that then is the intriguing appearance of Windows for ARM.¹ Whether there will ever actually be an ARM version or this is just meant to galvanize the energy-efficiency efforts of Intel and AMD, expect full Windows 7 devices with much lower power demands.²
I expect that, like Apple with Lion, they will soon mate the two OSes together to make a class of portable computers that get more flexible as more energy becomes available. Using cloud processing on the move, powerful processors in their own right when plugged in. That would be pretty nice.
A microprocessor family designed for extreme power efficiency, used on the overwhelming majority of phone and tablet devices, as opposed to the more general-purpose x86 family that Windows only runs on now.
What’s the betting they’ll be releasing tools to help software makers port their products from x86 to ARM? Though not before their own apps have had a good head start of course.