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Crave Talk: Is Nokia flying too close to the sun?

Nokia's Series 60 interface and new flash features are undermining the company's reputation for simplicity and ease of use

Yesterday, Symbian announced that 100 million Symbian smart phones have shipped to over 250 network operators worldwide since the company's formation. Symbian develops and licenses the Symbian OS and has been used on devices manufactured by BenQ, Ericsson, Fujitsu, Lenovo, Mitsubishi, Motorola, Nokia, Panasonic, Samsung, Sendo, Sharp, Siemens and Sony Ericsson.

Nokia in particular, has used it on many phones in conjunction with its proprietary Series 40, Series 60, Series 80 and Series 90 platforms. Most of Nokia's high-end phones run on the Symbian OS version 9.1 with the S60 3rd Edition platform.

Last month Crave went to the Symbian smart phone show and we were blown away by the number of applications Symbian-based handsets can support. It was simply overwhelming -- from satellite navigation to instant email access to VoIP. But do phone users really want all these new features?

Nokia has always had a reputation among consumers for simplicity in design and use. Once people had had a Nokia phone, all other phones seemed too complicated to handle. Like the iPod, an elegant user interface gave them a unique position in the market, appealing to purists and newbies alike. Nokia phones just worked.

Yet at the launch of the Nokia N72, N73 and N93 earlier this year, Anssi Vanjoki, executive vice president and general manager of multimedia, said that the company no longer wanted us to think of its products as phones. They were morphing into 'multimedia computers'.

Some of the journalists present might have snorted at such pretension, but if they did they were quite wrong not to take the company seriously. Nokia genuinely believes in 'convergence', in super-smart phones that do everything. We can see the appeal, in theory. It would be great to have an MP3 player, GPS sat-nav, Internet browser, camera and phone all built into a small 'computer' that was always with you. In fact, Nokia has already done this with the incoming Nokia N95. So what's the problem?

The fact is, Nokia's phones are in danger of turning from the iPods of the phone world into the Gizmondos -- from devices dedicated to doing one thing well to jacks-of-all-trades that do too many things poorly. The S60 3rd Edition interface has received tonnes of criticism from veteran Nokia users for being far too complicated to use. It's great that there's new stuff to play with, but not so great that the old stuff, as in making calls and sending texts, has been made more complicated.

There's a simple explanation. Nokia's right. These new phones are multimedia computers -- with all the complexity, lengthy boot-times and interface confusion we've come to expect from Windows PCs. You now have to wait for your 'multimedia computer' to boot up and shut down and once everything is up and running you have to wait while an application loads. Is that what mobile phone users really want?

Then there's the issue of battery life. With so many new features the battery simply can't cope anymore. Recharging your phone almost every day has become the norm, which is a far cry from the days when phones like the Nokia 6310 would last you four or five days. Some people have also complained that the build quality isn't as good as it used to be either, with phones breaking more easily than they used to.

Of course, it's always easy to hark back to the good old days. Nokia's new phones aren't  all bad, but these unsatisfied customers may have a point. While some users want a small computer-like device, many Nokia users were and still are quite happy with just having a simple, easy-to-use phone.

The perfect balance would be to do both well. Rather than focusing all efforts on making expensive converged devices, it might be a better tactic to make several devices that do one or two things very well, with calling and texting at the heart of the user experience. Nokia phones' ease of use and simplicity made them the iPod of the mobile phone market. But the dream of convergence has made Nokia fly too close to the sun. -Andrew Lim