Ask Maggie: On the future of Nokia's N8, feature phones, and real keyboards

In this week's column, I get out my crystal ball and make some predictions as I try to help readers figure out which smartphones to buy this year.

I am asked all the time by readers, friends, and family members to offer my predictions on what I think is coming in the mobile market, as if I have some crystal ball hidden in my office.

Ask Maggie

It's true that I follow this market closely, but I must admit that I did not go to the Hogwarts School of Wizadry. And as such I have no crystal ball hidden anywhere to give me the answers.

That said, I am happy to offer my best guess based on what I know and have seen in the market. So with that disclaimer, I offer some predictions in this week's Ask Maggie. First, I answer one reader's question about what I think the sales prospects are for the Nokia N8, given that Nokia recently announced it will discontinue the development of the Symbian operating system.

I also offer some insight as to why I don't think Verizon Wireless customers should expect a slew of cool new "feature phones" anytime soon. And I predict that real QWERTY keypads will not disappear from the smartphone category in lieu of virtual keypads.

Ask Maggie is a weekly advice column that answers readers' wireless and broadband questions. If you've got a question, please send me an e-mail at maggie dot reardon at cbs dot com. And please put "Ask Maggie" in the subject header.

Is Nokia's N8 dead?

Dear Maggie,
I was thinking of purchasing a Nokia N8, but since the announcement of the Microsoft/Nokia merger, I'm figuring that the N8 and its OS are dead in the water, along with support etc.

Your thoughts please.
Roger

Dear Roger,

To clarify things a little bit, Microsoft and Nokia didn't announce a merger. They announced a close strategic partnership . Nokia said it would stop developing new smartphones for its existing Symbian platform and going forward will only develop smartphones for the Microsoft Windows Phone 7 platform. Still, it's interesting to me that you referred to this deal as a merger, because I think in a sense many people look at this as a step toward Microsoft acquiring Nokia .

Anyway, let's get back to your question. Should you buy a Nokia N8 ? That's a great question. I asked Stephen Elop, Nokia's CEO, during a meeting I had with him at Mobile World Congress in Barcelona this very question. Elop and his team are confident that they will be able to continue to sell Symbian smartphones in fact, the company predicts it will sell an additional 150 million Qt capable Symbian smartphones before it transitions to Windows Phone 7.

During our chat, Elop first explained that most of the Symbian phones that Nokia sells are sold to customers in emerging markets, such as India and China, where Nokia has a strong brand.

"Symbian customers are buying Symbian at the price points and in environments where those phones meet their needs," he said. "And that doesn't change overnight."

OK, that's a good point. But what about smartphones like the N8? Who would buy be these phones knowing that Nokia is retiring Symbian and focusing all its efforts on the Windows Phone platform? Elop said that even though Nokia has no plans to develop future phones on the Symbian platform, he still believes that the N8 is a compelling device.

"The N8 is a great device for someone who values photography," he said. "Nothing comes close to the value of that camera."

He added that Nokia is already making improvements that will enhance the user experience on the Symbian^3-based N8 device. For example, the company plans to upgrade the device's processors. And at MWC, Nokia showed off a new user interface for Symbian^3.

"We will continue to improve the functionality while we manage through transitioning the Symbian user to later devices on the Windows Phone platform," he said.

But I think your instincts are correct. While Nokia says it will continue to support and improve the N8 while it develops Windows Phone devices, the reality is that its operating system is dead. I can't imagine that application developers will create new apps for these devices. So even if Nokia continues to support the N8 and improve the bits of hardware and software that it can, if you want access to the latest and greatest in mobile applications, you'll miss out with the N8.

Also, I am sure you are aware that no carrier in the U.S. subsidizes the N8. This means you won't be forced to sign a two-year contract to get the phone, if you decide to purchase it. But it also means you'll have to pay full retail price for the device.

Personally, I'm cheap, which means I can't justify spending $449 on a device that I know doesn't offer me the same flexibility in terms of applications as an iPhone or an Android smartphone. And by the way, I can get an iPhone or an Android smartphone for as little as $49. (AT&T is offering the iPhone 3GS for $49 and Verizon offers a bunch of low-end Android smartphones for $49 or less.)

I know some people hate carrier service contracts, but the way I think of it is that I need to pay for a monthly service anyway. So why not just sign a contract and get a really good deal on the phone?

In short, the N8 is toast. And unless you really are enamored with the hardware, I wouldn't consider it as an option.

Verizon's strategy for getting every customer into a smartphone

Hi Maggie,
I'm on Verizon Wireless's Family Plan network and I can't afford to pay for a smartphone for everyone on the plan. But I want to get them something with a "cool" factor (i.e. like the LG Dare, Chocolate, or EnV). But I've noticed that Verizon currently doesn't have much in that category. Do you know if they'll be getting anything soon or are they purposefully offering mediocre phones to force consumers to upgrade to smartphones to have the "cool" factor?

Thanks,
Tuan

Dear Tuan,
I discussed your question with my colleague CNET Reviews editor Kent German and we agreed that the "feature phone," which is the device between a smartphone and a basic phone will eventually go away. Your instincts are correct in thinking that Verizon is trying to push customers into higher-end phones. They are. Verizon makes a lot more money from customers using smartphones than it does from customers on a regular feature phone. So they are definitely pushing these devices more aggressively and downplaying less capable devices.

Verizon's strategy is a little sneaky. The carrier still has a small selection of feature phones, such as the LG Cosmos. But these devices often cost as much or even more than some of the low-end Android smartphones, such as the Motorola Citrus, LG Vortex, or LG Fathom.

In fact, when I checked out Verizon Wireless's Web site on Thursday afternoon, the Motorola Citrus and the LG Cosmos were each being offered for free with a two-year contract. Normally, the Motorola Citrus is $29.99 with a two-year contract, and the LG Cosmos is $69.99, according to the Web site.

The Motorola Citrus runs Android OS and it offers an HTML browser, access to e-mail, an 8-megapixel camera, and 8GB microSD card with the option to slot in a 16GB microSD. It also offers Wi-Fi and access to Skype Mobile. These are all things that the LG Cosmos , which is basic feature phone with a QWERTY keyboard does not offer, according to Verizon's comparison chart.

So if the Motorola Citrus offers more and is cheaper than the LG Cosmos, why would anyone buy the LG Cosmos feature phone? Here's where Verizon gets sneaky.

Verizon makes it money not on the phones that it sells, but on the service. So the company requires all smartphone customers pay for a $30 a month unlimited data plan. Verizon also now requires that customers using 3G feature phones also sign up for a data plan. But the company offers lower cost options for feature phones. For example, subscribers who want the LG Cosmos can sign up for the $30 a month unlimited plan, a $10 a month plan that offers 75MB or a pay-as-you-go data plan that charges $1.99 per MB.

When I priced out Verizon's family plan, it looks like Verizon offers a discount for people sharing minutes, but no discount on the data. In other words, every phone on the plan still requires its own data plan.

What this means for you is that, even though you can get a smartphone for $50 or less, you'll still have to pay $30 a month for each device for the data service. If you choose one of the less sexy feature-phones that are still available you can drastically reduce that price to $10 a month or pay by the megabyte.

Real keyboards live on

Hey Maggie,
I have a Motorola Droid and one of the things I love most about it is the physical slide-out keyboard. I'll be in the market for a new phone later this year, but I've been disheartened by the lack of new Android-based smartphones that have a slide-out keyboard beyond just the "Droid" line. I know the technology of touch screens is ever-improving, but I still feel like I get the most accuracy from using a physical keyboard. Using your crystal ball, do you think there will be more phones offered with a keyboard in the future or will I just need to get used to being frustrated with touchscreen keyboards?

Thanks,

GOPpower8

Dear GOPpower8,
According to my crystal ball, virtual keyboards won't completely supplant real QWERTY keyboards in the future. And my CNET Reviews colleague Kent German agrees.

"Full keyboards aren't going away," he said. "But they will be fewer in number. I just think the iPhone has trained a lot of people to use a virtual keyboard."

Another reason why handset makers are moving away from physical keyboards is because they increase a phone's bulk. They also add more moving parts to the device that can break, according to Kent.

That said, there are still many people like you, who prefer typing on a physical keyboard rather than tapping out an email or SMS message on a touch screen. With that in mind, there will likely be phones to cater to this market for some time.

In fact, manufacturers introduced three new smartphones at Mobile World Congress in Barcelona last week that will have real keyboards. The problem for you is that none of these phones will be available on Verizon's network anytime soon.

  • Sony Ericsson Xperia Pro : No carrier in the U.S. has been announced for this phone, but it is a quad-band GSM world phone with support for 3G networks in North America. So hopefully it will come to the states.
  • ZTE Amigo : Availability or pricing for this phone hasn't been announced yet either. It's likely it won't come to the U.S. anytime soon.
  • HTC ChaCha : This phone is expected to ship to major European and Asian markets in the second quarter of the year. But it will be available in the U.S. later in 2011 as an AT&T exclusive.

All three of these phones operate on a GSM network, so I wouldn't count on Verizon ever getting them. Verizon's network uses a different network technology called CDMA. But at least it shows that manufacturers are still building smartphones with real keyboards.

For now, your best bet if you want to stick with Verizon's network and you want a device with a physical keyboard is to go with one of the Motorola Droids. The Droid Pro, Droid 2, and Droid R2D2 offer real keyboards. Verizon also offers the Palm Pre 2 with a real keyboard. And there's the HTC Ozone, which is an older generation Windows Mobile phone, which I would not recommend. (Windows Mobile is the older version smartphone operating system from Microsoft. The company now has a new platform, Windows Phone 7, which is considered much better than Windows Mobile.)

 

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