Nokia took the wraps off a Wi-Fi internet tablet today at the LinuxWorld show in New York, the first in a new range of consumer devices from the phone giant. The pocket-sized device has no cellular capability, but boasts an 800x480 screen, runs the Opera browser and will retail for around $350 - less than rival PDAs and some of its own high-end smartphones.
Nokia sees browsing and email as the primary uses, but the Tablet will be bundled with internet radio, voice over IP and an RSS feed reader. It's an open platform, and unlike its phone range, there's no built-in DRM or similar shenanigans to cripple the user experience.
The 770 Internet Tablet is also Nokia's first Linux handheld, and Nokia is launching a Linux development platform "maemo" specifically for this new range of handhelds. It uses the ARM port of GNU Linux Debian 2.6 and runs Texas Instruments 1710 processor. Executives cited time to market and the community of enthusiastic developers as their reasons for opting for Linux over Symbian OS.
The 770 will be available through general electronics retailers or direct from Nokia's website. The company says broadband providers are particularly interested in carrying it, too.
Nokia bridled at comparisons with today's PDAs and Microsoft's Tablet PC initiative.
"We don't like to think it's a PDA. To us a PDA is an extension of a PC. This is almost like a mobile phone of the internet," Janne Jormalainen, VP of Convergence Products at Nokia Multimedia told us. "If you've used browsed the web on a PDA, well, you know what that's like."
"The tablet PC is really another kind of a PC in its different form factor, so you can't even compare these two," he said.
(He was too diplomatic to refer to the Tablet PC's most notorious bug).
The 770 has no camera or hard disk, and for storage the 770 Tablet relies on the postage stamp sized RS-MMC format, with a 64MB card in the package. For audio, Nokia has built-in a standard 3.5mm audio jack. Nokia expects users to transfer bookmarks and saved pages to a PC via Bluetooth or USB. Much more of a practical hindrance, we suspect, is the battery life. Even with a hefty 1500 mAh battery the Tablet will only run for up to three hours because of the power-guzzling Wi-Fi radio.
(As a comparison, our Nokia 9300 comfortably maintains two days of mostly-on GPRS).
So why had low-cost internet appliances failed to catch on, we wondered?
"The internet has matured - this is really a mainstream thing now. People have needs at home beyond using the desktop PC or the PC of the house - it's really a matter of having the critical mass of uses for these services," said Jormalainen.
That depends on where you are, of course. In the West the net means the web, but Asia thinks more of specific social activities that just happen to be network-enabled, such as games and chat. Even with Opera's outstanding browser, the mobile web is a poor relation to a modern PC: try placing a bet or booking a holiday on the move. And so it's likely to remain.
However, ditch the web and there are plenty of network-enabled services to enjoy: internet radio is one, and personal file sharing is another. Behind the scenes, Nokia has given plenty of thought to what the world would like if traditional compensation models were applied to digital media. Sony's PSP has Wi-Fi, but unlike Sony, Nokia doesn't own movie studios or recording companies, which can be an advantage in getting a product to market. The killer app for a device like Nokia's Tablet won't be VoIP, but the "What am I playing?" menu.
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