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Shadow of N-Gage looms as Nokia prepares onslaught on gaming

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Nokia is taking on Microsoft in many of its key markets, and is apparently also adopting the Microsoft approach that, if a product is sub-standard the first time, it will succeed on the third reworking.

Under the auspices of the Finnish giant's increasingly successful and focused multimedia devices unit - making 'multimedia computers', not 'cellphones' - the unlamented N-Gage mobile gaming brand is set to be reincarnated again.

On this occasion, though, it will be part of a broad strategy called Next Generation gaming, a platform for release early next year, which will run across various Nokia devices and could conceivably be licensed to third parties as part of the company's increasing focus on influencing the whole sector through de facto software standards.

Perhaps the main reason to take the platform seriously is that it seems that Sony will publish games on it, despite competing with Nokia in various fields. The original N-Gage was launched in 2003 and was discontinued in 2004 when the redesigned N-Gage QD model replaced it. The QD was itself discontinued this year, and there are no first generation N-Gage games in development any more, as Nokia prepares for Next Gen.

While this will create a common delivery platform and set of interfaces for various devices, mirroring Nokia's strategy in content downloads and other areas, it will also include specific gaming-oriented devices based on an evolved version of the N-Gage architecture, and probably carrying the same brand, despite its poor associations for many games developers.

The N-Gage and QD were not actually games consoles but standard Nokia Symbian Series 60 smartphones with horizontal casings, but with no specialist gaming hardware. The Next Gen platform, according to insiders, will consist of Series 60 3rd Edition smartphones, and will include the new games-specific software as well as optimized hardware.

Their processors will run three or four times faster than those in the N-Gage, and many will have 3D graphics chips. Old games will not be compatible, because new smartphones use smaller miniSD and microSD memory cards rather than MMC gamecards, plus the new products will have the latest Symbian operating system, which is not backwards compatible. Although Nokia will continue to support the N-Gage Arena - the world's first mobile online gaming community and a rival to Microsoft Xbox Live.

The Next Gen software platform will come pre-installed on various Symbian S60 3rd Edition smartphones, with varying degrees of specific focus on gaming. The software will allow people to buy Next Gen games as downloads to their smartphone through 3G or Wi-Fi, or as downloads to the PC which can then be transferred to the phone.

This mirrors Nokia's ambitions to create mobile/PC download services in other areas of content. In August it acquired music store partner Loudeye, which offers services in 60 countries, and complements Nokia's position as the largest maker of mobile music devices. It has also put increasing momentum behind its Content Discoverer client, embedded in many of its higher end devices, which makes downloads such as films and games available. Content Discoverer is embedded as an on-device portal in more than 20 Nokia handset models, and has content partnerships with companies like Time Warner and Electronic Arts.

Moving away from the downloads, the Next Gen application also has extensive community facilities, allowing users to send messages to friends, view message boards, leave and read reviews of games, challenge people to online game matches, and see which games other people have, so they know who to challenge. While Nokia is most famous for its gaming failures, because of NGage, it has some powerful building blocks to strengthen Next Gen.

One of these is Arena, which is based on the online gaming network SNAP, which Nokia purchased from Sega in 2003. Although Nokia has dropped no hints about which devices will support Next Gen -and whether that and N-Gage will be used as primary or just secondary brands, but the most likely early candidates are the N93 and N95.

The N93 already comes pre-loaded with a demonstration of one of the Next Gen games, a sci-fi racer called System Rush, and has a 3D chip. The N93 and N95 also contain TV Out sockets which can be used to play games (or surf the web) on television sets, with the phone acting as the joypad and games system rolled into one.

Copyright © 2006, Faultline

Faultline is published by Rethink Research, a London-based publishing and consulting firm. This weekly newsletter is an assessment of the impact of the week's events in the world of digital media. Faultline is where media meets technology. Subscription details here.

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