Saturday, 15 October 2005

Nokia's new e-mail phones

Nokia’s newly-announced e-mail phones are interesting, and I think one of them could be very successful.

The three new devices come with a bewildering array of mail client options, including RIM, Good, Visto, Seven, and Nokia’s Business Center (which I believe is the software that syncs directly to Exchange). I wish I’d had a mail client on the market, they probably would have licensed from me as well.

I think the client that matters most in the short term is RIM, because a lot of companies and operators have standardized on the RIM server and have been asking for RIM-compatible devices. Unfortunately for Nokia, in the US what they’ve been asking for is RIM-compatible Windows Mobile and Palm OS devices, and Nokia’s devices are on Symbian, which has basically no traction in the US.

I’m very pleased, though, that they didn’t try to tart these things up with a bunch of multimedia features. The people who want e-mail phones are, for the most part, very distinct from the people who want entertainment phones. Look at RIM -- they’re a crummy device for almost everything except e-mail, and yet they’re the leader in the category. If I had my choice, I wouldn’t have even built cameras into the Nokia devices, but many operators require cameras these days, so Nokia probably had no choice.

Anyway, the three devices are the E60, a candybar phone; the E61, a minitablet with keyboard; and the E70, which has a flip-over keyboard. I don’t expect much from the E60 -- an e-mail phone without a keyboard is like a bicycle without handlebars. (Yeah, I know they exist, but how well do they sell?)

The E61 is being compared online to the Treo, but actually it’s a pretty slavish RIM Blackberry clone, just like the Motorola Q and the HP Mobile Messenger. I guess it makes sense to target RIM’s ID, since Blackberries outsell the Treo by a wide margin. But all of these RIM-like designs are too wide to be held comfortably in one hand by many people, and I think that’s going to be a barrier to wide adoption. It’s not really a comfortable replacement for a mobile phone.

The device I like best is the E70, which picks up the flipover keyboard design of the Nokia 6822. The cool thing about this design is that when the keyboard’s closed, it looks like a regular mobile phone and you can hold it to your face fairly comfortably. But when the keyboard’s open, you have a pretty roomy keyboard in which you can type easily with two thumbs. It’s much roomier than the Treo’s keyboard.

Downside: You can’t type one-handed while strap-hanging on the subway.

The thing that bewilders me about the E70 is that it’s triband instead of quad band. That means you can’t travel with it and be confident that it’ll work around the world. E-mail phones are professional road warrior power tools, and you need to make the user confident that they’ll be well connected wherever they go. The Treo is quad band, and I assume Palm will make an issue of that when selling against the E70.

Nevertheless, the E70 impresses me. I think typing will be faster on its keyboard, and the RIM client will be a big selling point (assuming it works, a big if). I think it has good prospects in Europe. Will its advantages be enough to overcome US IT managers’ distaste for the Symbian OS? That’s going to be an interesting one to watch.

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