Monday, 1 February 2010

Are Nokia confused, or taking the piss?

Nokia unquestionably build some of the most comprehensively specc'd, durable and versatile mobile devices on the market.

They have no real sense of style, and they are in the uncomfortable position of having the most advanced, specialised, sophisticated operating system sitting under the most dated user interface (well, except for Windows Mobile. I keep forgetting that abortion exists), but if you buy a high-end Nokia you will lack for little, and even get a stream of firmware updates for at least the next year and a half.

However, they are showing a baffling inconsistency in their "portable computer" cant, and they have steadily driven me towards jumping ship to an immature Android, rather than put up with their frustrations any longer.

The thing is, they give you all the power needed to have an entire multimedia computer and journalism/blogging/art platform in the palm of your hand, and then forget about it when they build their own services.

Like their notoriously unreliable, buggy and unfinished launch firmwares, they're 95% serious about how powerful their own devices are.

The biggest example of this is in their support for installing software.

On any decent mobile computer, you can go to a website, browse it, read the details, download the installation file, install it, job done.

There is no question, here, on how "decent" Nokia's devices are: There's at least one blogger, in India I think, who doesn't own a PC and who updates and manages their blog entirely from their N-series Nokia.

So why can't I download Nokia's own software straight onto the device?

Example #1: Beta Labs

Nokia beta labs. In general, a great idea. A place for software to be trialled in the public sphere, for feedback and bug reports to be given, and for nice little utilities to be given an outing that would otherwise not make it.

In fact, one of my most-used programs, Nokia Audiobook Player, only ever existed on Beta Labs, and has been discontinued by the engineer responsible. (If anyone is looking for a more flexible audiobook player, that doesn't need everything to be converted into a different format, try Platysoft's Scheherazade).

Here is the first problem: Nokia recently, completely out of the blue, released a new firmware update for the N95, to v35. I waited a while, cautious, then went ahead and installed it, and in general it's been good - slightly improved free RAM, speed and stability.

As a result of which, I needed to reinstall most of my applications. This included the improved calculator, which was ripped out of the S40 dumb-phone platform and made available for phones based on the S60/Symbian smartphone platform because, frankly, the native calculator sucks.

I downloaded it, I installed it, and I got: "Invalid certificate error". WTF? Nokia's own application won't install on one of their phones? Did they perhaps forget something in the new v35 firmware?

But, moving on, here is problem the second, and here is the big but:

They recently redeveloped the website, and it was, in general, good.

But where, I ask you, is the download link?

For example, I tried Here and Now, which purports to provide details of nearby movies, events, etc., taking your location from reception tower IDs.

I could not find a download link in the entire mobile Beta Labs website. I had to go to the full size version for that. And fuck you too, sir.

Oh yes, and then there's this: "the client will not be available for download after the Beta Labs period ends. The client will be preinstalled in selected devices."

I see. So Nokia haven't learned from the backlash against removing Podcasting from the E-series devices, and they're determined to minimise customisation and make a mockery of the "portable computer" concept.

Example #2: Windows-only upgrading

Next up is Nokia's baffling insistence that if you don't use Windows, you don't count.

Although newer phones can do Over The Air (OTA) upgrading of firmwares, the older varieties relied upon Nokia PC Suite, which was only available for Windows and which didn't work under systems like Wine on Linux or Apple's OSX.

Even if you don't need a full firmware upgrade, you'll be stuck if you want to do something as simple as upgrade Maps.

Nokia Maps, now renamed Ovi Maps as Nokia tries to convince everyone that they're becoming a services company, has had some major upgrades over the years, culminating in the current 3.3 version which will do offline navigation for free.

(Note: Nokia announced it as "free for all!" but that's a bald-faced lie. It's available for five or six brand new devices, and even the N97 had to wait. It can be installed with varying degrees of success on other devices, but don't hold your breath for official support if your phone is more than about six months old. They're like that).

So how do you go about installing it? Well, you need Nokia Maps Loader installed on your PC.

No, despite the fact that this is a single program we're talking about, it's not available on their still-not-finished Ovi Store, and it can't be downloaded by itself.

You have to download Maps Updater, which, at 20MB, is nobody's friend.

But wait! There's more! It won't even install, let alone run, unless you have PC Suite installed.

Which, you guessed it, means even more download. I could go into how bad the reputation of PC Suite is for being huge, buggy, and capable of slowing your computer to a crawl, but I might cry.

So: Fuck you, Nokia.

Even if you do get through all this, and get Maps updated on your device, you will find out that the actual maps themselves aren't included. You will need a network connection to download them as needed, after which they will be available for future usage.

You may as well use Google Maps for Mobile instead.

Actually, you can pre-install all the map files using, you guessed it, your PC. But the device will not, itself, upon being run for the first time, say "Do you want to download all the maps for your region/country?" which, considering that it's possible for your PC to do it, should be possible.

No. It won't. Not even, apparently, the absolute latest and greatest devices. No, they're still stuck with relying upon a laptop which could quite easily cost less than they do.

Does this make sense? Is it sensible? Does it represent a commitment to truly delivering a complete mobile experience?

No to all of the above.

What it is, is incredibly, incredibly, annoying.

What I want from a smartphone is what I want from a computer - a good hardware platform and an open software platform that supports me while I customise it into the best tool I can.

Nokia makes the hardware, alright, but although Symbian is an open-standards platform, Nokia isn't. Podcasting is just one case in point where their product managers have annoyed their customers, with no apparent way around it except to go elsewhere - in this case, to Escarpod which, thanks to Nokia not donating the source of Podcasting to Symbian, is being submitted as an official app, and best of luck to them.

On the other hand, there is a thriving developer community building up around Android, which is itself a platform ripe for development and customisation, as people like Cyanogen are demonstrating.

Now, if only Android had a great camera phone...

For those of you who have a Symbian phone and get driven to a rage by things like having to sign applications before installation, or have a Linux or Mac computer and need to do backups, go to It sadly hasn't been updated in a while, but it's still the best collection for resources on how to liberate what should never have been locked.

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