The Nokia N97 and education?

Nokia yesterday unveiled the N97 their latest smartphone which is being dubbed (not by Nokia) as their iPhone Killer.

Nokia N97 in use

The talk of an iPhone killer is premature and Nokia know this - they have a long way to go yet to catch up with Apple - and a lot of it is not about creating the right device. Nokia have no App Store, lack a single platform and have a brand that is more about utility and reliability than it about innovation, cool and media as Apple’s is. The price for an unbundled device will be €550 which means it is aimed at high end users and not even being put to compete with the iPhone.

I have yet to get my hands on a N97 - so my thoughts are based solely on the images I have seen on the Nokia website, engadget and from the always enthusiastic Robert Scoble.

The device could be thought of as a N810 phone, but it’s OS is S60 not Maemo and this makes a difference in terms of how this device will be useful. In terms of the physical device it seems to be slightly smaller than a N810 and similar in width and height to an iPhone - but almost half as deep again.

As you would expect from Nokia the camera is 5 Megapixels and can do DVD quality video, which is a great improvement over the iPhone.

There are three very striking things about the device:

  • Slide out QWERTY Keyboard
  • Touch screen
  • Simple button design - as I understand it when the keyboard is not shown - there is really only one button and the touch screen (sound familiar?)

Reports say that the touch screen interface is good - but not as reactive as the iPhone screen. The reason for this is the technology used for the touch screen. Nokia use a ‘resistive’ touch screen to support pen based input (important for inputting Chinese and Japanese characters) which is something the iPhone apparently doesn’t do well. More importantly the S60 user interface has been greatly improved - but I am not sure yet if it still matches the simplicity of the iPhone. A user interface is ‘only’ software and can be improved upon. There is a problem with the ‘only’ software issue though - are software updates as easy for the N97 as they are for iPhone users?

The obvious differentiator between the devices though is the keyboard - and as I have often argued this is key for educational purposes. Nokia seem to have chosen to keep things simple with the keyboard - it looks easier to use than the N810 which is even better. The N97 continues to show that Nokia devices are great at capturing input (pictures, videos and typing). Improvements to S60 may make using Nokia phones simpler and easier, but the iPhone platform is simple and better for consuming media - from music and video through to applications.

At the moment I still think the iPhone & iPod Touch are the better platform for education even though this device is starting to show Nokia is moving in the right direction. Educational applications will probably always make up about 10% of all applications available for a platform. Until Nokia boasts as many applications as the App Store there will never be as much educational content for a Nokia phone. The number of applications in the App Store (10,000 last week) is an indication of how successful Apple have been in lowering the costs of development for 3rd parties, by providing a single (non-fragmented) platform, handling distribution and billing and guaranteeing the 70% revenue share. Nokia need to address these problems if they want to have a large set of applications and as a result of that educational content.

I think that Nokia need to do the following if they want to generate as successful application platform as Apple:

  • Provide a single platform for application developers to work with phone and non-phone devices (Maemo would fit the bill well and there are indications Nokia think this also).
  • Provide a simple integrated application delivery mechanism - just like they have done on the N810 with Maemo - the Over the Air updates are really simple.
  • Provide a simple developer payment mechanism like Apple’s 70%
  • Find a brand that means something to consumers that shows Nokia is a media company  (N97 ! come on what does that mean to a consumer?)
  • Make sure this device always ‘Comes with Internet’ and consumers understand this is an internet and application phone

The N97 shows that Nokia have moved in the right direction and have been able to change themselves and rise to the threat from Apple (which is more than can be said of RIM and Microsoft). This also shows what a competitive market does for innovation in mobile technology which can only be good.

For mobile phones in education - it is still clear that if you want to use the phones in people’s pockets you need to have a cross platform solution (such as uHavePassed and for anything complex you can only aim at a small percentage of phones. The iPhone platform will have 40 million users by the end of the year and is very attractive as a single device. The N97 will not impact on the position of the iPhone - but it shows that a future device from Nokia way well do just that.