N810 Internet Tablet Shows Nokia at Its Best and Worst

I’m posting this from my shiny new toy — a Nokia N810 Internet Tablet. It cost me about as much as an entry-level laptop, but I can’t resist tiny, powerful gadgets. It’s got a great slide-out keyboard, GPS and a bright, sharp screen. I love the stand, which flips out into three positions and lets me put the device on a desk or a coffee table and use it as a mobile display.

And yet…

For me, the N810 is a good example of everything that’s good and bad about Nokia products. At its best, Nokia makes some of the most beautifully engineered hardware on the planet. But the N810 hardware is let down by the software, which — in my experience — is poorly conceived and executed, missing features or simply not there.

The N810’s e-mail client is little better than the one on my eight-year-old Psion 5mx. It lacks features like mail filtering and handles POP3 accounts clunkily. The device doesn’t support any office software, even the OpenOffice suite, and there’s no integration with the calendar, contacts or messages on Nokia’s own mobile phones.

After cramming as much technology as possible into the N810, Nokia seems to have forgotten about the software. I get the same feeling about certain Nokia phones, which have needed several firmware upgrades to make their cutting-edge features truly usable. The company’s R&D efforts seem focussed on hardware, to the detriment of software and applications. Nokia recently revealed it was stuffing more technology into the N810, announcing a WiMAX edition, even though there are no commercial WiMAX networks for it to run on.

In contrast, Apple has captured the public’s attention with devices that have intuitive, well-designed software coupled with relatively lacklustre technology. There are plenty of mobiles with more features than the iPhone, but none have its easy-to-use interface and seamless integration with a PC environment and content delivery system.

I think Nokia needs to decide what it wants to do with its Internet Tablets. Are they mass-market products or geek toys?

The Internet Tablets use a lot of open-source software. The operating system is a variant of Linux and the browser is built on Mozilla technology. Independent developers are plugging some of the gaps in the software, but many of these open-source applications aren’t mature enough for mainstream use. There’s little incentive for developers to improve them, especially when they could sign up for Google’s Android Developer Challenge and share some of the $10 million award money.

The success of the Asus Eee PC shows that people will buy a small, Linux-based device if it comes with enough software to duplicate the functions of a traditional laptop. If Nokia wants a slice of this market, it’ll have to beef up its Internet Tablet software. Ordinary consumers will expect a device that costs more than the Eee or an entry-level laptop to at least match their capabilities.

If Nokia decides to keep its Internet Tablets as niche products, it should increase support for independent developers, by stepping up funding, by making it easier to access key functions on the devices (such as root access), and by releasing more programming interfaces for its proprietary technologies.