Do Nokia's Lawsuits Have a PR Component?

Nokia's fight with Apple over patents is no doubt mostly about cross licensing and payments, but the legal strategy could have a significant PR impact. In short, Nokia has an image problem - how could a lawsuit possibly help?

First, some background.

Apple's Market Entry

Apple is a master at polishing technology to the point where it appeals to the average user. It did not have the first mp3 player, nor did it have the first music store, but the iPod was so much more user friendly - and pretty - that it made the market explode. In fact, it became so popular that the word iPod has become virtually synonymous with portable music players.

Good for Apple. And it managed to repeat the design success with the iPhone. Nokia's first attempt at a touchscreen phone failed in 2004, but Apple waited until the technology was good enough and came out with a product free of legacy software with perfect timing. The iPhone was the first smartphone that was user friendly enough for the average user to seriously consider browsing the internet on the go. Again, the market started growing.

It's a Rectangle With a Screen

But this time around, Apple created a serious image problem for the other manufacturers. Smartphones are much more complex than music players, and apart from the less than perfect user interfaces, the industry was developing pretty well without Apple. However, because Apple was the one to reel in all the smartphone newbies, many were left with the impression that they first saw all the features in an Apple product. When the other manufacturers finally got around to improving their UI, it looked like they were copying Apple at every level.

Then, people used to the iPhone's simplistic UI failed to notice the extra features offered by other phones. What a dilemma. Either copy the UI directly and be derided, or make a differently good one and people won't want to learn it.

For Nokia, this was ten times worse, because its recent smartphones had been failing in the US as a result of bad relations with local operators. Who was going to buy a full priced unlocked phone when all service contracts still included the device cost? Now, operators like T-Mobile are finally starting to at least partially drop the credit payments from their monthly rates, but just as Nokia gets the chance to reenter, it's suddenly seen as a new entrant, desperately trying to copy the iPhone (or RIM, see the E72).

In truth, Nokia has countless variations of phones, and these two only represent a small fraction of the form factors. And how many different kinds of rectangles covered with a large screen can there be?

Free Advertising

Reporters and celebrities, let's face it, are rarely computer nerds. The popularity of the iPhone in its own niche thus resulted in plenty of free advertising - to the point where people would say "on your iPhone, you can access our mobile version" rather than "on your phone".

Nokia is not without blame. The S60 Symbian user interface was nearing end of life, and aging technology had to compete against Apple's brand new designs. Managers obviously thought they had more time to code new software than they did in reality. Still, in the rest of the world Nokia enjoyed all the benefits of an old platform: backwards compatibility, user familiarity with the UI (legacy quirks and all), widespread support, etc. None of these concerns are without merit, and S60 is much better on non-touch phones, so it continued to be a well liked alternative and market share leader.

But here's the critical part: much of the world's tech media is based in or is influenced by the US. The US media, in turn, wrote about the iPhone as if Nokia's smartphones had never existed (because, to them, they hadn't). Absurdly, the world's largest and arguably most full-featured phone manufacturer started being talked about as if it were a niche player.

The message started sinking in: Nokia had bad products, and any new ones were just a response to Apple - bad copies at that. And the iPhone was only $99 when Nokia's products were up to $600! (The former is only the first credit payment, of course.) This kind of publicity will affect the whole product line, and taint even the very good <$200 touchscreen models Nokia offers, for which Apple has no alternative. Fortunately for Nokia, the <$50 keypad models sell themselves, but all the discounting due to perceived lack of value explains why margins have been shrinking drastically.

Of course, Nokia never really stopped innovating. Maemo 5 is already in a league of its own, and Symbian is getting a completely new UI in several stages during 2010, to better compete with Android and Apple. But how is it going to shrug the image of being an uninnovative copycat?

Patent lawsuit.

Trolling for the Right Headlines

What would have happened in the press if Nokia and Apple had resolved their patent dispute this year? Nothing. Maybe a couple of press release regurgitations about cross licensing agreements. Now that we're hearing about the lawsuits and there's a dramatic battle, we can expect big headlines if Apple is forced to concede anything even on sweetened terms.

And those headlines will matter a great deal to Nokia. Maybe Apple didn't invent the wheel after all. How could a simple copycat have amassed such a mountain of patents? Maybe there's something to Nokia after all, people will say. And Nokia will be waiting with an army of Maemo 6 and Symbian^3 (^4) products, ready to impress with 2010-level, completely new user interfaces. What's S60?


Previewing Easy Debian for the N900

If most users are to use desktop-grade applications on the N900, there needs to be a simple way to install them. Easy Debian will provide just that, but it's not quite up to the task yet. Advanced users willing to do some beta testing will find it exhilarating even now.

Click on the screenshots for full resolution.

Why a Separate System?

Current generation phones still have some of the technological limitations of embedded devices. The fastest flash device on the N900 comes with only 256MB of storage for the root partition. Even though Nokia adds a 2GB partition for /opt on slower storage, the size limitations preclude offering desktop apps directly in Maemo.

Even with more space, it makes a certain amount of sense to keep mobile and desktop apps separate. If a chroot environment gets damaged due to badly behaved programs, the phone and all other mobile apps in the Maemo repositories will still work.

Easy Debian solves both issues by running Debian programs from an image file users can place on the 27GB FAT32-partition. Once it qualifies for the Extras-repository, the average user will be able to install it from the Maemo package manager, and then new programs using Synaptic.

Beta Issues

The largest problem I ran into was that no KDE apps I tried are accepting input from the keyboard. It appears to be caused by a bit too much mobile optimization in the window manager. I wouldn't be surprised if someone is already working on a patch, but in the meantime Easy Debian must find a workaround before it can be considered ready.

Even now, though, Konqueror was already useful to me. Controlling it with a stylus works surprisingly well, and by specifying the address on the command line, I was able to quickly get some music off my smb share.

Another strange issue is that the default image file is so small there's virtually no room to install anything on it. This may have made sense with previous products, but the N900 has so much space that the only reasonable size is the full 4GB that FAT32 allows for one file (groan).

Advanced users can obviously create their own image, but why use Easy Debian in the first place if that's the case? (Although, to be fair, it does do more automation than just mounting the image, such as making the Maemo home directory available inside the chroot.)

Sound doesn't work, but we should remain hopeful that the Easy Debian developers somehow manage to configure PulseAudio right. I wouldn't hold my breath, but a fully functional PA would be wonderful. The N900 should be an excellent platform for testing network transparency features.

If the mouse pointer in desktop apps is off from where you're pressing, go to the phone settings and play with the recalibration tool.

My Advice: Ditch the Theming

The first thing I noticed was the horrible effects a mobile theme has on desktop applications. It's obvious that the intent is to increase finger-friendliness, but I am convinced that the developers will never get the themes to show enough content on screen. There's a reason the N900 ships with a built in stylus - so let's use it for what it was intended.

For comparison, here are some screenshots of atrocious "Maemo"-themed applications next to beautiful and usable KDE-themed ones, which really showcase the usefulness of Easy Debian:

Another application many users should find helpful on the go is Wireshark, which performed well, and would be totally unusable with a finger-friendly theme:

Games Need Keyboard Remapping

I installed Abuse, and while aiming with the stylus was a breeze, the game is unplayable unless you're left-handed. Several other games that didn't natively support keyboard remapping refused to work entirely, as I just couldn't press the right buttons at all. This is exacerbated by non-English keyboards that sacrifice up/down for extra letters.

The only solution to this problem is someone writing an easy remapping tool that lets players quickly substitute wasd for the arrow keys etc. (Actually, the only 100% playable option would be qw for up, a left, s right, zx down, because pressing a vertical and horizontal key simultaneously is too hard with wasd.)

But here's a screenshot anyway: