Did the Nokia N97 help kill Nokia?

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GSM Arena is currently running one of its 'Flashback' retrospective articles, looking at the Nokia N97, with the provocative title 'Nokia N97 was an "iPhone killer" that helped kill Nokia instead'. It does make some good points, covered below, though the saga of Nokia, Symbian, and Windows Phone is insanely complex and on occasions tragic, worthy of a book (like this). Or a movie?(!)

From the GSM Arena article:

...If the 5800 wasn’t perfect, the Nokia N97, which was supposed to be the company’s top phone in the fight against the iPhone, was an outright disappointment.

Don’t take our word for it, here’s what Anssi Vanjoki, Executive VP of Markets at Nokia, had to say about it. “The N97 has been a tremendous success for us when it comes to how many did we ship and how much money did we collect. But, it has been a tremendous disappointment in terms of the experience quality for the consumer and something we did not anticipate.”

Nokia was still the 800 pound gorilla, its name alone sold phones. But the gorilla had feet of clay. Smartphones of the past ran only a few apps and accessed a limited version of the web. Smartphones of the future had to deal with sites made for PCs and run apps just as complex as the desktop computers. And that was well beyond the capabilities of Nokia’s platform, both hardware and software.

The iPhone made touchscreens cool and the N97 had a touchscreen too. The 3.5” panel had a media-friendly 16:9 aspect ratio and was larger than the one equipped on the 5800. However, it still used resistive touch, which was always the worse option compared to capacitive touch – if not for its lower sensitivity (though that was an issue as well) then for its lack of multi-touch support.

Steve Jobs had enchanted the world with pinch zoom and iPhone’s holistic approach to software. Symbian S60 Rel. 5 felt like a patchwork of fixes to make an interface designed for D-pad operation to work with a touchscreen.

That's all fair - Symbian and S60 were birthed in an era where there was an expectation that phones should be as small as possible and with as long a lasting battery as possible. The only large, touch-enabled screens were in PDA-like communicators and they were high end niche devices. The iPhone, with its single day battery life (if that), emphasis on screen real estate (though only 3.5", amazingly), and the expectation that regular web sites should be 'handled' somehow, was a very real moving of the goalposts in the industry. The original iPhone was demonstrably worse (in terms of specs) in so many ways compared to the Nokia N95 of the time and even the N97 a couple of years later, but it was demonstrably better in experience and expectations. And the moved 'goalposts' stuck, while hardware and specifications followed on behind to bolster this new position, I contend.

The last sentence hurts to read but is accurate, of course: 'Symbian S60 Rel. 5 felt like a patchwork of fixes', etc. That's because it was. It was a touch UI retro-fitted over a non-touch-optimised codebase. And it wasn't until "Symbian^3" in 2010 that genuine multi-touch support and semi-optimised applications appeared. Which was a bit late.

And talking of specs, GSM Arena hits the nail on the head here:

...it wasn’t the screen that sank the Nokia N97. Not even the clunky Symbian software. No, it was Nokia’s mindset, which was stuck in the past, that was the real problem. The N97 launched in mid-2009 with a single-core processor clocked at 434 MHz and just 128MB of RAM. Of that, only around 50 MB remained free after the OS loaded.

I did quiz insiders at the time on the N97's RAM and it seems there were OS architectural restrictions that kept this at 128MB.

The article doesn't mention the internal storage, i.e. the 'C' system partition on the N97, which was capped at 256MB, which also ran out far, far too quickly once applications were installed. (This got fixed in the N97 mini, which had 512MB.)

Not Symbian, though, that had supported true multitasking for years. It’s just that it ran relatively simple apps, which fit comfortably in the limited resources available. But after Apple and Google opened the doors of their app stores, developers rushed to create apps and games that would have targeted desktop computers and the N97 couldn’t cope.

Fair points, though the article does make the mistake of playing the numbers game a little as it goes on:

Really, failing to build a competitive app store may have been an even bigger problem than N97’s underpowered hardware. At the time of our review (June 2009), the Nokia Ovi store had “as many as 525 applications”. For comparison, Apple published a press release in November of 2009, bragging that its App Store had 100,000 apps available for download (a few months before that, the App Store had reached 1 billion app downloads). Around the same time, the Android app store had around 11,000 apps.

The joke at the time was that the iPhone had a thousand 'fart' apps and Symbian only had one, i.e. thousands of rubbish apps shouldn't make or break a platform. But as time went, on the millions of apps in the iOS and then Android app stores included the few hundred high profile titles that any platform needed. And which the Ovi Store largely still lacked.

Do go read the full article - it's a little savage but does make more good points. With hindsight, of course, but then that's always handy for any of us!

PS. I did catalogue a lot of this nine years ago here, if you want to go back to read the view from 2011!

Retail Nokia N97

Source / Credit: GSMArena