Nokia N97: Stuck between Symbian and a hard place

Noah Kravitz
 from  Oakland, CA
| June 22, 2009


I've been testing the Nokia N97 for more than a week now.  On the one hand, I'm not very impressed with the device.  On the other hand, I know it represents a predictable refinement of Nokia's N-Series lineup that will keep thousands of Symbian loyalists happy until the first Symbian Foundation OS devices hit the market.  If they ever do.  

Still, I don't think the N97 is a worthy competitor to smartphones from the likes of HTC, Palm, and ... yes ... Apple.  I've been using terms like "trainwreck," and "befuddling" to describe it, in fact.  I know I'm going to get a ton of, "You don't like anything that's not an iPhone," "You don't understand how awesome Symbian is" Emails about that one.  That's fine, but hear me out.

Nokia is the biggest cell phone maker in the world.  They sell, I don't know, like a gazillion phones each year. Smartphones, messaging phones, super cheap dumbphones - Nokia makes, sells, and ships all sorts of phones to all parts of the world and to all sorts of customers.  The N97 is the newest flagship Nokia, and is the current king of the N-Series, which is their flagship line.  So this is the newest, bestest phone from the world's premier maker of phones.  Ergo, it's a big deal.

Therefore it's also a big deal that the N97 feels more like a retread from Nokia's 2007 product lineup than a state-of-the-art device circa 2009.  Back in October of '06 I wrote a gushing review of Nokia's E70, a rather oddly shaped but very powerful and innovative smartphone for the time.  The E70 featured a full QWERTY keyboard, 352 x 416, 16 million color display, Symbian OS 9 Series 60 platform, and both GSM and WiFI connectivity.  Despite the phone's chunky profile, I was amazed at how well it handled virtually everything I could think of to do with it - and the E71 wasn't even Nokia's flagship device of the moment.

Web browsing, in particular, was a joy on the S60 browser, which was basically the best in the business at the time. I had qualms with the user-friendliness - or lack thereof - of the S60 interface, but it was worth climbing the learning curve in order to do wield such a powerful mobile device. The phone ran about $350 unlocked, and wasn't available subsidized via any US carriers, but I felt it worth the price tag so long as the boxy industrial design wasn't a deal-breaker for you.

Jump ahead to now, June 2009, just over two and a half years later.  The N97 just started shipping at an unlocked price of $699, and while it features a ton of storage, a top-notch camera, and a touchscreen, it still runs the good ol' Symbian 9/S60 platform (albeit a few tenths of a version number newer) and still features more or less the same Web browser with those features that felt so innovative 30+ months ago.  

There are some nice things about N97, and there are thousands upon thousands of apps available to Symbian S60 users, but the device feels old and half-baked, not fresh and exciting like flagship phones from Nokia's competitors.  N97's specs are top-notch (save for the lack of a capacative display), and I'd be the first to tell you that Nokia knows how to do hardware (though the battery cover on this thing is a bad joke), but Symbian 9.4, Series 60 release 5 with some touchscreen modifications just doesn't cut it in today's smartphone OS world.

The experience of using S60 on a touchscreen is lackluster at best - the home screen UI is made up of chunky rectangles where the Palm Pres and HTC Touch Pro2s of the world feature smooth fonts, eye-pleasing curves, and soothing animations.  N97s display is pretty responsive for a resistive touchscreen, but it's no match for the made-for-fingers capacative multitouch displays of the world.  Yes, I was able to use the phone - it's not as though nothing works.  But my time with N97 made me feel like Nokia's either found themselves in a horrible bind relative to the transition between Symbian OS 9 and the first Symbian Foundation OS ... or ... they just don't care about competing with the iPhones, HTC G1/Magics, and Palm Pres of today's world.

Symbian loyalists have already stopped reading or started penning point-by-point counterarguments to this post by now.  And that's good - like I said, back in 2006 I was all about the power of S60 and Nokia's eye-poppingly high end E- and N-Series devices.  But it's no longer enough that you can multitask and take great photos on a Nokia smartphone.  Or maybe it is?

Nokia sells a ton of phones, like I said.  Connoisseurs of entry-level handsets will tell you that inexpensive Nokias have long been known for great voice quality and great battery life.  And Symbian maintained a two-to-one lead over its closest competitor in terms of smartphone marketshare as recently as Q4 2008, according to Gartner.  So maybe Nokia's content to rest on its aged platform and substandard user experience in order to continue shipping incrementally better spec'd devices that continue to support the enormous Symbian ecosystem.

Except ... According to the same Gartner report, Nokia's smartphone sales declined almost 17% in Q4 2008 vs Q4 2007, while its four closest comeptitors - RIM, Apple, HTC, and Samsung - all experienced growth.  Apple and Samsung each sold twice as many smartphones in Q4 '08 as compared to the same period of 2007.  So while the Finnish giant still maintains a healthy working margin as the world's #1 seller of smartphones, that margin is shrinking.

I really hope that Nokia's got a revolution in store for us when it comes to the high-end Symbian experience.  Whether its the Symbian Foundation OS or a new release of S60 that was re-engineered from the ground up for touchscreen devices (is such a thing even possible?), I want to see Nokia ship some modern devices offering modern user experiences.  Last year's E71 and this year's E75 showed me that the company still knows hardware.  And the recently announced E72 shows that they may be taking customer suggestions when it comes to hardware refinements and feature sets.

Dare I say it, but I almost thing Nokia would be best off launching an E- or N-series device running Android instead of Symbian.  That'll never happen, I know.  But imagine a phone with hardware prowess of an E71/72 or N95, with a capacitive touch display, running Android?

Heck, as I look at the N97 sitting on my desk, I imagine it running Android - and maybe with a new QWERTY board featuring the space bar in the middle instead of all the way off to the right - and I smile.  Nokia knows hardware - they always have.  I just hope they relearn software very, very soon.

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