Nokia updates firmware for N800 Internet Tablet

el Nokia N800 ahora con SkypeImage by Hector Milla via Flickr

Back in February I did a review of the Nokia N800 tablet and noted that it came up short in several areas.  Nokia has been working to improve the tablet, and has just released updated firmware.  As noted on the ThoughtFix weblog the updates are primarily focused on greater stability and performance, and one huge new addition – Skype capability.  Out of the box, the N800 had the Gizmo Project built in, but Skype has become somewhat of a global VoIP standard, so it’s addition to the base firmware is certainly worth noting.  If you have an N800, I would suggest making your way over to the maemo website and downloading the upgrade.

Is Palm about to introduce a web browsing tablet?

Despite all the recent punditry and pronouncements of Palm’s impending sale, the company continues to chug along on the smartphone front, while preparing to unveil a new product line. Could this new product be like the ‘Firefox Computer’ that I wrote about earlier this year? Will it compete with the Nokia N800 that I wasn’t overly enthused about? Jeff Hawkins, the brains behind Palm, has been dropping not-so subtle hints over the last few months about ‘a third line of business’ – traditional PDAs and smartphones being the other. Combined with the introduction of a new Linux based operating system (supposedly PalmOS retro-compatible) and the recent Opera announcement, it looks like Palm is poised to move up the productivity device chain from smartphone to some sort of ‘smart tablet’. Ed Colligan, Palm’s CEO, stated that this new device would not be dependent on wireless carriers, but have wi-fi connectivity. All of these factors point to a device that will compete head to head with the N800.

Palm has much to gain at this mid-tier, the spot between a cramped smartphone and a bulky laptop. Microsoft’s UMPC (Origami) devices haven’t yet lived up to the hype of being portable laptop replacements, but Palm may be able to drive the space. Building up from a the architecturally restrictive environment of PDAs and smartphones, one would hope that Palm’s engineers know how to keep bloat out of this type of product line. Third party developers for the PalmOS have already shown how powerful the decade old operating system can be, despite tight memory and performance restrictions. Palm has also learned that, even in the smallest devices (like smartphones), there really isn’t a replacement for a real keyboard. As I said in my review of the N800, the on screen keyboard is an inelegant solution for real productive use. Hopefully these realizations have inspired the engineers of the new product line.

Obviously price-point, battery life, and ubiquitous connectivity will play a key factor it this product line’s success as well. I could put another dozen or so things I’d like to see from this product line, but for starters I just hope that the operating system is open enough that Firefox can be readily installed on it (unlike the N800). Maybe then I’ll have my ultimate portable Firefox computer!

Nokia N800: Not really for the rest of us (yet)

In my quest to become totally platform agnostic and mobile, I decided to give the new Nokia N800 internet tablet a spin. The N800 is an interesting and hard to classify device manufactured by Nokia, purveyor of mobile phones. Dubbed an ‘internet tablet’, this second generation device is primarily aimed at the mobile user who is looking for a feature rich internet experience while on the go. The N800 is NOT a phone, it is also NOT (yet) a fully fledged PDA…but it has the potential to be both. Fitted with Bluetooth and Wi-Fi capabilities, the N800 can access the internet via Wi-Fi connections as well as through Bluetooth enabled phones. There have been several excellent reviews done on the device already (MoblieCrunch and Spicy Gadget Roll), instead of reiterating much of the same, I’ll suggest you read those posts to get a good perspective of the device’s strengths.

My Experience

I’ve had my N800 for three weeks now, and have used it in many locations, including at home, at my office, and on the road at airports, hotels, and nearly everywhere in between. Three weeks is not an awfully long time to run a comprehensive test of a new ‘category creator’ device, but I’m pretty comfortable in saying that the N800 is a wonderfully built device that isn’t really for the rest of us, yet. Don’t get me wrong, I do think that Nokia is on to something here. I just think that they are a generation, or two, away from achieving mass appeal for the internet tablet genre.

What works

Nokia has built a rock solid, elegant device in the N800. Having learned from its predecessor, the N770, Nokia polished not only the look of the N800, but also improved the usability of the form factor by adding touches like the integrated stand and a much improved stylus. The addition of a built in, rotating, camera has made possible to have a mobile video messaging tool right in your pocket. Speaking of pockets, the device is reasonably small, certainly bigger than my Treo 700p, but it can fit in a coat pocket or a pair of cargo pants with ease. Besides for improving the form factor, Nokia also integrated stereo speakers that are surprisingly good. After retracting the camera and stand, the only protrusions on the outer shell are four small buttons on the top of the unit. Three of these buttons are squarely focused on the browsing experience. While web surfing, you can expand the built-in Opera browser to full screen mode, and further zoom in or out on a page with these buttons. Other applications, like the music player, take advantage of these buttons for volume control. A fourth button is the power on-off switch. The N800 is an ‘instant on’ device, which makes it incredibly useful when you’re on the go.

The built in software, for the most part, works quite well. Being a connected device, the most important software elements are the ones that let you connect without hassle. The N800′s Wi-Fi connection software works very well, connecting you to trusted Wi-Fi locations almost the instant you turn the device on. Bluetooth connections to my cell phone also were quick. There are several core applications pre-loaded on the system that also are nicely designed. A simple RSS feed reader does the job, as does a media player that can stream music from the web. There is also an email client included that provides pop3 or IMAP access to email. Chat is another core function that Nokia delivers out of the box. Using either Google Talk or Jabber, you can chat with friends in a standard text mode, or with the feature rich video and sound mode. Both modes work as advertised. As I mentioned above, Nokia chose to go with the Opera browser for this unit. Opera is functional, however it doesn’t work with many popular websites (I’ll discuss that in the next section).

Along with the online applications mentioned above, Nokia also ships several offline utilities, a very basic contacts manager, a calculator, a world clock, a note taking application, a simple sketching tool, and a PDF document reader (there are several games as well). These applications are simple, arguably too simple, for extensive use.

What doesn’t work

While there is a lot to like about this device, there are enough frustrations with it that I can’t find myself using it all that often. First, and this is a problem for us left handed people, the control buttons are clearly positioned for right handed users. The natural way to interact with the tablet is to hold a stylus in your right hand (to type or point on the screen) and use your left hand to click the navigation buttons while holding the tablet. The device buttons are on the left side of the N800, which is a natural configuration for right handers…not so much for us lefties. Given the landscape style layout of the N800, I’m really not sure what Nokia could have done to remedy this problem, but it does make it difficult to use for an extended period of time. I suspect this design consideration would have forced Nokia into a portrait layout, much like the Palm or Microsoft PocketPC devices. By going to a portrait layout, Nokia would have compromised browsing usability – the key functionality of the device. I’m not sure how much of a hindrance this will be for wide user adoption, but it certainly makes it more difficult to use for left handers.

Second, Opera (or the current version of Opera on the N800) is awfully buggy. Ok, it may not be that Opera is buggy, rather many of the websites that I visit on a regular basis do not behave well with Opera. There are some sites, most notably Google Calendar (and Google Docs & Spreadsheets), that just do not work with Opera. There are other sites that cause unpredictable lockups and other behavior when accessed via Opera. When I first got the N800 I was particularly excited about being able to access my deployment of SugarCRM on the fly. Unfortunately, Sugar tends to gum-up the browser to the point that Opera locks up. Based on a recent interview with the head of Nokia’s N800 software effort, Opera compatibility issues will be addressed sometime this year. Let’s hope they expand compatibility to include the major Ajax/Lazlo centric websites that we’re becoming more reliant on. The real fix would be to move over to a Firefox (Mozilla) based browser.

Third, and has been extensively written about, many flash enabled sites – including YouTube – grind the N800 to a halt. From what I gather this may just be an issue of optimizing Flash for the N800, so this may be fixed in short order.

Fourth, I know that the N800 is not really a PDA/Smartphone, but the inability to synchronize my key contacts, calendar, and task information makes this device much less useful that I expected. Dr. Ari Jaaski heads up the Nokia software effort and is quick to point out that the core concept of an internet tablet is to have access to online applications, and not necessarily for extensive offline use. In a totally connected world, I would agree to this premise. We are however, not yet in a totally connected world. Given the modest battery life, 3-4 hours while connected, total online dependence on this device is anyway impractical. Also, with limited pocket space and a need to have access to key information, the device needs to have solid PIM capabilities if I’m going to carry it around all day.

Finally, the lack of a built-in keyboard really makes extended text entry difficult on the N800. Like others, I have had success using my Stowaway Bluetooth Keyboard to craft lengthy emails on the device, but trying to thumb in more than an sentence or two on the on-screen keyboard is not easy, nor is it accurate. I think this is inherently a problem of keyboards that lack tactile feel. To be sure, the touch screen itself is not to blame here, it is as responsive as you’d want it to be on a device like this. It is just awkward to use on a regular basis. By the way, I think will be the biggest issue with Apple’s iPhone too. Nokia may have built a better device if they had incorporated a slide down keyboard. Given the ‘bump’ on the backside that accommodates the camera and stylus, adding incremental depth to the unit by adding a slide down keyboard would have made it much more useful.

Open standards will transform this device

Arguably the best decision that Nokia made while designing the internet tablet platform was to build it on open standards, not on some locked (Apple iPhone) or proprietary system. Nokia could have crippled adoption of this device had it chosen its own Symbian platform. By choosing Linux, Nokia has tapped into a strong developer base that already is cranking out some great software. Nokia has clearly made a commitment to this platform, and I’m sure that the developer base will take the platform’s functionality far beyond what Nokia has envisioned. As I mentioned before, I hope this means that we’ll see a solid PIM and Firefox sometime soon for the device.

Final thoughts

The N800 reminds me of two other devices I’ve used in the past. The first was the original PalmPilot. I bought one of those within a month of its release and could immediately tell that it would be a transformational device. Palm, in all of its incarnations, nurtured a developer base that helped Palm change the future of mobile computing. Palm’s hardware was simple, and operating system easy to design for. Both of those factors made for a killer combination. It has gotten stale of late, but the PalmOS still remains a juggernaut in the Smartphone world. The N800 has the ingredients of being a truly transformational device, too.

The other device I’m reminded of is the Sharp Zaurus. Like this Nokia, the Zaurus platform was designed with a Linux core. Like the N800, the Zaurus had a solid group of early-adopter developers designing useful applications. Hopefully, unlike Sharp with the Zaurus, Nokia’s internet tablet platform will continue to grow and prosper in a manner that resembles Palm’s trajectory, not the now-discontinued Zaurus.

In the end, I’m not sure that the N800 will be a ‘runaway’ success. I don’t even think that Nokia expects it to be a runaway success. All that Nokia needs to do is to nurture the developer community, much like Palm, and continue to update the hardware with things like better battery life and a real keyboard option. Until the Microsoft UMPC based systems shrink in size, Nokia will have the internet tablet space to itself. With the rapid expansion of ubiquitous internet connectivity, the internet tablet, or computer, concept is here to stay.

Satchel: A new way to interact with 37Signals’ Backpack emerges for PalmOS users

I have to admit that I’ve been a spotty user of 37Signals’ Backpack service ever since they unleashed it into the wild. Although I love the ability to setup pages to track all kinds of odds and ends, several annoyances have gotten in the way of me becoming a devoted Backpack user. There are the obvious omissions – no search, not inherently easy to move tasks from list to list, etc. The most overlooked annoyance, however, is that Backpack isn’t really portable. You’d think that a service called Backpack would be, you know, portable?

37Signals addresses this shortcoming by granting outside developers access to a rich API (application programming interface) set, effectively empowering outsiders to craft their own tweaks to the Backpack core. From a portability perspective, most of the API-based development has been relegated to Apple Mac users. There is also a nice Yahoo! Widget available that gives you desktop access to Backpack, although it doesn’t provide true portability. Less has been done, however, for true portability via PDA or smartphone. 37Signals themselves built a spartan mobile interface which allows for the most basic Backpack portability possible (as seen to the left). I’ve never been a fan of this interface. It fails on three fronts. First, while it’s simple – it may be too simple. It just doesn’t feel as intuitive as it should be. I know that designing an interface for mobile devices is extremely difficult, given the wide variety of browsers, screen sizes, etc, but Backpack’s mobile interface doesn’t cut it for me…not to mention that mobile browsers tend to be slow, even if you’re on a wireless broadband network. Second, the mobile interface requires a password to login every time it’s accessed (at least that is the case on a Treo)…not good for rapid entry and access. Finally, this mobile interface doesn’t provide true portability; in other words, you still cannot take your Backpack offline.

All of these factors have kept me from adopting Backpack as a comprehensive task, notes master. I’m also very committed to David Allen’s Getting Things Done (GTD) methodology, so contextual access to my task lists is absolutely critical. To be a true GTD centric application, offline task lists are key to making contextual access possible.

Enter Satchel

After many stops and starts with Backpack since it’s release (like many GTD’ers I tend to look for different ways to be productive all the time), I finally came across a near perfect implementation of Backpack portability in Satchel. Satchel is a Backpack API dependent application that runs on PalmOS (Access) PDAs and Smartphones that gives you portable access to Backpack’s lists, notes, and reminders functionality while on the go. With Satchel, I am able to synchronize my Backpack task lists and notes onto my Palm Treo 700p, and send back changes in a flash. This is not just wireless access to my data, but a full fledged offline, syncable client on my Palm device. I’m not a heavy user of the Reminders function on Backpack, but Satchel also lets you setup Backpack Reminders – which then are added to both Backpack and the Palm Calendar. Task lists, notes and reminders are by far the most critical features within Backpack and Satchel lets you manage all of them in a simple and elegant manner, without being tied down to a computer. The program is still in beta mode, so there are some rough edges to it, but the beta is active for another two months (up through Mid-March 2007). It is certainly worth a look for anyone who has wireless access on their Palm device and relies on Backpack as a central repository. Standalone makes some of the best applications for the Palm that are available today. I’ve used their Super Names contact manager for years, and also use their Quick News RSS feed reader. Both of those products have evolved quite nicely, so I’m confident that Satchel will continue to get better and better.

Now if we could just figure out a way to get 37Signals to freshen up Backpack with some badly needed upgrades….

Not a lot of killer buzz coming out of CES yet

I know, the show has just started, but I have yet to see any ‘killer’ gadget emerge from CES 2007. Engadget, as usual, is all over CES, but a lot of other bloggers are swarming Las Vegas too. Gottabemobile.com reports on the OQO 02, the nicely updated ultra compact computer by OQO. It looks impressive, given that it has built-in WAN (Sprint EV-DO) capability, and a bunch of other refinements. It is, however, still very expensive at $2,000 a pop. Closer to $1,000 and I’d really be interested.

Also on the portable front, SlingMedia is revving up a release of its software for Slingbox access via the Palm 700p. JkontheRun contributor Kevin Tofel has the low-down here. The Slingbox is a great little device that allows you to place shift your television viewing. By place shifting, I mean you can watch whatever the Slingbox is hooked up to from a location that is physically distant from the location of the Sling. With the addition of a Palm client, I’ll be able to watch television from our DirecTV connection anywhere the Palm can pull down an EV-DO connection. Nice.

Michael Gartnberg of Jupiter Research explains CES 2007 nicely in his post:

The big theme at CES is integration and not convergence

This year, it’s all about how to integrate the diversity of devices that consumers are using into a whole that allows for the information and content they want to flow seamlessly from device to device.

One of these days I’ll find the time to make it to a CES. Until then, I’ll just rely on the great blogging that’s going on in Sin-City!