In defense of the 'Cargo Cult' Communicator

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Steve Litchfield responds to Andrew Orlowski's scathing criticism of the Nokia E90 Communicator in AAS podcast 27....

The Nokia E90

AAS podcast 27 was a bit of a must listen, to be honest, with the around-as-long-as-me Andrew Orlowski voicing his opinions on the downfall of Psion, the creation of EPOC and Symbian and also, specifically, his views on the Nokia E90 Communicator, the most revent in the classic clamshell line. Now, I respect Andrew's opinions and, to be honest, I can see where he's coming from, but I'd like to address some of his criticisms and stake my corner in the E90's defense.

"Cynical"? "Cargo Cult"? "Doing it on the cheap"?

So Nokia had a loyal following for its 9300 and 9500 Communicators. And here they are producing another in the line, looking similar but with a very different user interface and applications. I can see why someone steeped in Series 80 on the 9300/9500 would feel shocked by the complete change under the hood, but, and we've mentioned this before on AllAboutSymbian, Nokia had very little option when conceiving the E90. Series 80 was (as I see it) too tied up with Symbian OS 6.0 and 7.0, circa 2002 to 2004, and here they were developing a new Communicator for 2007, with Symbian OS 9.0 (and higher) now the required standard for modern devices, not least because of the need for HSDPA/3G support, not to mention the new Platform Security system and support for the real time, single chip OS kernel. Nokia's a big outfit, but it was still deemed wasteful to pour large amounts of effort into bringing Series 80 up to speed and then maintaining it, when resources could be concentrated into just S60 and have this serve both purposes.

Whether this was the right decision in the long term is academic - it's what happened and without S60 there might not have been any followup to the 9300/9500 models. At least this way round, the Communicator marque carries on, albeit with a new personality. Thus 'cynical' isn't the right word to use about Nokia's decision to use S60 - 'common sense' or 'practical' might be more apt. And, having decided to go with S60, at least effort has been put into adapting some of the core S60 applications to take advantage of the full 800 pixel wide screen. [See review part - E90 - the applications]

E90 screenshotE90 screenshotE90 screenshot

"Hanging off the one key"? "No accelerators"?

The quote that Ewan used in the podcast, attributed to Andrew, that kicked off discussion of the E90, was that it was crazy to have the entire menu structure in each application 'hanging off' a single softkey. Now, while in some apps this can be clumsy (asking for email 'Details' springs to mind), much of the time it's not a problem at all.

Remember that S60 is designed around a traditional phone form factor, where it's normal to hang your 'Options' off the left hand function key (indeed, this is how the E90 itself works when you close the clamshell). And because the programmers had this in mind, you'll typically find less menu options at any point, in any app within S60. So thinking about the typical, static menu structure from a 9300/9500 application, with perhaps 30 to 40 separate menu functions in any one app, and then trying to conceive of these being 'hung' off a single function key, is not really fair.

Instead, most S60 applications either have less functions in the first place or, just as commonly, present different menu functions depending on the mode or point reached in the app. In other words, 'greyed out' menu functions are extremely rare in S60 - instead you simply get the menu functions that are possible, in context-sensitive fashion. True, accessing a menu function will require slightly more keypresses than in Series 80, but the time taken is generally comparable because with the linear S60 menus there's no need to navigate across multiple menu cards, as was the case in Series 80.

E90 screenshotE90 screenshot

Following on neatly from the menu having been shown to rarely be a problem, Andrew's next point is that S60 doesn't have any accelerator keys. By which he means keyboard shortcuts to menu functions. This is quite true, but I'd contend that the sheer number of shortcuts on the Psion and on the Nokia 9210/9500/9300, seemingly different in every single application meant that nobody could possibly learn them all. Unless you were a real power user (or sad geek), most of us only really used things like Ctrl-E to Exit, and even then some apps were Ctrl-X!

Psion Agenda menu example

But, even without any hard-to-remember (so what did shift-ctrl-Q do in Calendar anyway? - that sort of thing) keyboard shortcuts to menu functions, S60 certainly does provide a basic level of keyboard acceleration. The clipboard trio of Ctrl-C, Ctrl-X and Ctrl-X work well within any text editing fields, while Ctrl-left or Ctrl-right jump to the start or end of a word, for speedy moving through text. Similarly Ctrl-up moves up a page and Ctrl-down goes down a page, all quite logical.

And then there are the multitude of handy-to-know but not-essential-to-use numeric shortcuts for many applications, originating in the keypad S60 world. For example, '2' to switch a video to full screen mode, '5' to zoom in on a picture, '#' to go to 'Today' in Calendar, that sort of thing. And, on top of these, on the E90 there are the now-standard application shortcuts below the screen, which save an enormous amount of time day to day.

Keyboard close-up

The one big disappointment, and one area that I'm sure Andrew had in mind specifically, is a biggie. Office file editing, with the third party Quickoffice, licensed by Nokia, doesn't support the text shortcuts mentioned above, preferring to require clipboard operations (for example) using the more cumbersome menu. Quickoffice, if you're listening, surely it's not too much to ask for you to support Ctrl-C etc? Hopefully, better keyboard support can be rolled into a future firmware update....

"Horrible device"?

Andrew's conclusion was that the E90 was a horrible device. For all the reasons above, I beg to disagree. I'll admit that it's something of a bastard child of both the Communicator line and traditional S60 devices. And that it runs the risk of offending, confusing and disappointing those familiar with both genres.

BUT, and it's a big BUT, I think the E90 sails across this tricky course with guns blazing. Some of the keyboard and application integration may not look elegant, but despite losing points for rough edges in its software (which, after all, can be fixed with an update or two), there's no doubting the quality of the finished hardware. Constructed sturdily in cool metal and with bullet proof hinges, a quite superlative main screen, a great 3 megapixel camera and VGA-recording video-cam, with all modern video and audio codecs and comms standards supported out of the box and with the little matter of GPS added, just in case, the E90's hardware, all in a phone-like form, is tough to beat.

The Nokia E90

Not a horrible device at all - and I'm obviously not alone in approving of the product, since the E90 is still an extremely highly sought after smartphone.

Steve Litchfield, AllAboutSymbian, 2 July 2007

PS. "What about fax"?

Now, this isn't down to a quote from Andrew, but I've heard it a lot on the forums. Yes, previous generations of Communicator had legacy support for sending and receiving faxes. And in truth, there's nothing to stop a third party developer from writing a fax application for S60, I'm sure it could be done, possibly with Nokia's or Symbian's help. BUT: come on, this is 2007. Fax is a technology from the 1980s and I haven't sent or received a fax in over 15 years. Yes, some traditional non-tech companies still use it, but the number is surely dwindling to insignificance? At least in the markets that you probably work in? So some guy wants to send you a fax? It's probably a printout of an original from his PC - can't the thing just be emailed to you instead, in perfect quality and much faster?

So, I know this will sound a bit heavy-handed, but stop whining about fax and move on. And pass this message on to the next guy who insists he wants to send your Communicator a fax... he'll thank you in the long run...

Bonus links:

Nokia E90 - the verdict
Video review of the E90

Top tips for the Nokia E90