Wednesday, June 11, 2008

iPhone 2.0 vs N-Series

It is always good to wait a day or two before writing about an Apple product announcement. When it comes to phones, I compare iPhones always against their main competitors, which happen to come from a former employer, Nokia, that I am also very familiar with.

iPhone 2.0 comes with new features like 3G, (a)GPS, notifications, enterprise connectivity, Office doc viewers, and a software eco system from developer tools down to a store on the phone itself. To start out, every feature that Apple announced is pretty much already available on Nokia phones. But not very well. And not in the US. Nokia's flagship 3G phones, the N-Series, weren't widely available, and those models that were weren't promoted or discounted as much as the iPhone was. In Europe they are very widely available, and thus the iPhone's capabilities were not a huge advance in the market as they were in the USA.

Let's start with the last feature, the applications and store. Symbian-based Nokia phones -- S60 as they are called these days -- have always allowed users to put on 3d party applications. Always. Nokia has a software store available on N-Series phones, it is under the 'Download' application; I use it to buy games that I pay for using SMS. The 3d party development tools have been awful for a long time but getting significantly better over the last couple of years (I may have had a small hand in that when I wrote a snippy report after using them saying we could save a lot of money and look a lot better by moving to Eclipse, a report that made the rounds internally.). But it is still not easy to write a Symbian program.

Building a smartphone on the hardware available in 2002 was not easy. Nokia did this by using software from Symbian, a company that made a smartphone based on code from Psion. The resulting programming language goes to great great lengths make sure a program plays nice, gets told whether every piece of memory it wants is available or not so the program can tell the user to quit other stuff, can be suspended and restarted at a moments notice (like when a user gets a call, which is supposed to interrupt everything), and can be kept running or suspended in the background for months without crashing. Theoretically. The result is a very subtle and rigid programming environment that is difficult to master. Now Nokia has also made JAVA and FlashLite available for commercial software, but those are not as fast, nor can they reach all the cool facilities of the phone as well as a Symbian program.

Apple has the advantage of starting over on pretty big hardware, but also looked at the whole problem of programs having to run in the background in memory, sharing space and cycles, and said "Well screw this. Only one thing runs at any type. If you get interrupted, you just stop, save to memory, end of story, program is over." This models doesn't allow cool stuff to happen in the background, but really simplifies programming.

This makes Apple's ecosystem a lot more viable, since, by using newer technology, it can offer a very nice experience building applications. It also offers a phone to deploy those applications on that somehow encourages exploration and finding features and using a lot of them. Steve Jobs' hyperbole aside, the network stats show that iPhone users use an awful lot of data time, which means they are comfortable browsing and using YouTube and what not. I am not sure the N-Series encourages as much exploration and adding, even if Google Maps and Yahoo Go are really neat programs to have. Apple's iPhone got a lot of websites to make iPhone optimized sites, the N-Series did not.

Apple really hasn't offered anything really new on Monday -- I could rattle off the technologies used behind the scenes when I read the reports -- except really integrated packaging. Apple's syncing technology really does make it easier to integrate the PC with the phone, something that is ok for Nokia on the mac with the Nokia Multimedia Transfer tools, but sucks with the N-Series PC Suite 2.0. I recently had to write a report on it so I installed and played with it, and in the words of my manager, the design and usability of it is "totally retarded". It's just a bad disheveled mess, the result of many unaligned groups doing their own little thing and one desperate product group having to integrate it all. Comared to the iTunes for iPhone experience, it's a joke.

And now MobileMe has eclipsed that and, for $99 a year, you don't even need difficult synchronization software to keep your PC or Mac and iPhone synchronized and your address book editable from ever web browser out there. It Just Works. Nokia was trying to create a wireless cloud destination for your games and photos and music called Ovi, but the announcements for it are over a year old and there is no useful syncing there, music  just jumps to a music store that blocks mac users and uses a DRM scheme Microsoft either has or will ditch, N-Gage gaming is late for most N-series phones, and Ovi certainly does  not integrate with your documents on the computer or give you 20Gb storage space. And that is just sad. I am using for mobile wireless syncing of my calendar and contacts, it's been working for years, but Ovi is just still nowhere (and won't even have single sign on between the syncing and gaming components from all I hear). And what is the relationship between Ovi Share and Mosh? Does anyone know?

All the pieces have been available for years by Nokia, and yet they can't seem to pull it together into a whole system that is fun to use. Instead we get crappy PC Suites, 3 different logins, delayed advanced gaming, and not very compelling products except generic JAVA games on the download store. Nokia, step up, your lunch is being eaten. Right now the only advantage you have is actual keys for people who like tactile keyboard experiences, your phones are slightly smaller, and the cameras are far better. But every time I see someone slide their finger across a screen and start up a browser on which they can actually see things, I kinda wonder hmmmmm....