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Nokia revives media phone concept with pen mini-tablet

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Nokia has unveiled its pen-based, mini-tablet smartphone platform once again. The 7710 media phone, announced today, is the second device to feature the Series 90 software, and Nokia hopes it will fare better than the first. A phone that showcased the software, the 7700, was announced exactly a year ago, but in June the company said it was being demoted to a prototype and wouldn't be released to the general public. Series 90 marks a departure for Nokia, which has for several years maintained that one-handed phones don't need any other input method, and two-handed phones really need a full keyboard. This had been the stance since it launched the QWERTY keyboard communicator eight years ago, and neither the success of Palm, nor Sony Ericsson's P900 could convince it otherwise.

The 7710 is fundamentally similar to its predecessor, but with a slightly redesigned case and no side-talking. It too has a 640x320 screen, an MMC expansion slot and slightly more memory: 90MB. It plays "Visual Radio" and, with an add-on, DVB-H video streams. It's to launch in Asia by the end of this year, and in Europe early next.

So who'd want one?

To date no company has successfully sold such a form factor - a landscape-orientated tablet - except to niche vertical markets. Nokia's consumer marketing people are clearly more ambitious than that, and want the 7710 to be pitched as a media device. However it's an attractive device on which to view real work too, with more than 60 per cent more pixels than Nokia's revived Series 80 communicator. As the platform will run RIM, Good and Visto software and there's a GPS add-on available, there's a chance that this will be a seriously useful lightweight version of what quaintly used to be called an "information appliance" (although you only need to think about this for a second to see that the person using the box is applying the information, not the box itself - but we digress).

The most serious limitation of the 7710 has only become apparent over the past year, with the runaway success of the iPod and the imminent introduction of Microsoft's Portable Media Center devices. As a "media phone", it doesn't do media as well as these other devices. Many MP3 players are also radios (although surprisingly, not Apple's own iPod). With 8 GB MMCs now available, the day when a solid state MP3 player can be folded into the phone at very low cost is drawing near. (Don't get your hopes up for using one in a 7710: it only supports cards up to 512 MB.) Will a phone ever be a better iPod than an iPod? That's doubtful, but it might be good enough for many people, especially given the price advantage. However there's more to a comparison than simply cost or capacity. Nokia hasn't announced the pieces of the software puzzle that are necessary to make this attractive to a mass market, such as synchronization.

Nokia and enlightened operators such as Orange are well aware, and have been for several years, that for appliances such as the media phone to become a truly essential part of people's lives, the fix required isn't technical, but industry politics. ®

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