Nokia's Latest Effort Just Doesn't Click


When I wrestle this huge phone from my pocket, folks gawk. It looks like one of those 1993-vintage bricks that could easily double as a blackjack. "You cover technology," one friend said, "and you use that?" I do. This phone, in fact, is a two-year-old Nokia 9110, the so-called Communicator, and it appears far less backward when I flip it open, exposing a keyboard and computer screen. This was one of the world's first mobile phones capable of surfing the Internet.

Although mobile Net-surfing has usually proven more work than it was worth, I've found this Nokia extremely valuable as a digital organizer connected to a phone. The Communicator originally was a niche item for Nokia -- a signal that the Finnish company was focused on the coming marriage between the worlds of data and mobility. These days, that market is filling up fast. Palm Computing is rushing to equip its line of PDA handhelds with phone connections. And Microsoft's popular pocket PCs, led by Compaq's iPAQ, will soon be connected wirelessly to the Internet through built-in phones. Motorola and Ericsson are also hustling PDA-phones to the market.

CUMBERSOME AND COMPLEX. And how does Nokia respond to these challenges? The answer arrived in mid-June, when it unveiled its new Communicator, the 9210. (It will be 9290 in the Americas, and debut early in 2002.) When I pulled this snazzy new phone out of the box for a test run, it seemed possible that Nokia, by refining an existing product, would jump to the head of the PDA class. True, the new phone was the same size, 6.3 inches (15.8 centimeters), as its predecessor -- a bit of a disappointment -- and at 8.6 ounces (244 grams), only a tad lighter.

Still, it promised faster data speed and came with a color screen. It also featured a brand-new operating system made by Symbian, the Nokia-led software joint venture. In short, if Nokia hopes to stave off the challenge from Microsoft and others in the mobile Internet, this new Communicator is key.

So what's it like? Well, I've been using a prototype of the new phone for a month, and I'm flat-out disappointed. It is more complex than the old one. It also feels flimsier. I had headaches trying to synchronize it with my computer and finally gave up. The only e-mail that works for me is the same slow connection that I used sparingly with my old phone. In short, I gain little from an upgrade to Nokia's new $800 phone -- unless the devices on sale now perform better than my early-model tester. (The retail cost may be less if it is subsidized by phone companies.)

Oh, I don't doubt that all sorts of magic resides within the faux gunmetal case. But precious little of it makes its way to me. If Nokia -- or anyone else, for that matter -- is going to entice the masses with PDA-phones, the machines will have to be far easier to master. Simple enough for tech dunces. And for lack of any better candidates, that means me.

FRAGILE AND UNFRIENDLY. First things first. A big part of Nokia's appeal has been quality, durability, and, above all, feel. Pick up a Nokia phone, from the economic 3000 series to the tiny executive toys in the 8000 range, and the machines feel solid. Batteries snap into place with a satisfying click. The phone falls and you don't even lose the connection. But in the new Communicator, the plastic seems softer. You can pry loose a back hatch, where the memory card is, with a tiny tug of a fingernail.

A couple of times, my tester's hatch has fallen open unprovoked. And when you close this phone, it makes only the slightest click, as if it hasn't quite made up its mind. Its hinges creak, like those of a toy made from soft plastic. My older version, by contrast, opens silently and shuts with authority. The new phone may be lighter, but I feel like I've moved from a Volvo to a Hyundai.

Then there's complexity. I never looked at the manual to figure out the calendar or address list of my old Communicator. I never had to. You typed letters, you moved the cursor. It was simple and intuitive. To change my 2 p.m. interview on Tuesday, I opened the day, moved the cursor to that time, erased one name, and wrote in the other. In the new Communicator, it's more work. You have to hit an edit key, which opens up a new screen. And if you try cutting to the chase with your cursor, you find yourself in the next day. It's maddening. I had to study the manual just to learn how to delete an appointment.

In Nokia's defense, this new machine boasts many more features of a full computer. It can handle Word documents, Excel spreadsheets, even video presentations. Users can cut and paste text from one document to another. People who have the time to read the manual could wrench all sorts of value out of this machine.

MANUAL LABOR. But who reads manuals? A couple of years ago I was visiting a company that translates these aggravating books. They talked about cultural differences in approaching software manuals -- making sweeping generalizations, of course. But they said that Americans, for the most part, don't bother with manuals. They put the disks in the computer and improvise. Europeans generally read the shortcut instruction card. At least a few Japanese, by contrast, make their way through the entire manual. And after doing this, they sometimes return the software unused!

I take the American approach and rule that the product has failed an important test if I have to resort to the manual. Maybe that's why I screwed up the synchronization between the phone and my PC. Now I've removed and reinstalled the program, and the Communicator and my PC are busy swapping data as I type these words. They've been at it for 10 minutes, which brings us to another of the Communicator's shortcomings: While the Palm and Pocket PCs synchronize quickly in their electronic cradles, this Nokia phone noodles data for minutes on end through its wire connection. Any users who have grown accustomed to the cradles will find this vexing. This will be especially important for Nokia as it attempts to sell this machine in Palm-centric America.

Add all these shortcomings together, and pile on others I haven't yet found, and I'll forgive them all if this phone can handle one crucial job: e-mail. Here it has some potential. Though this is not a high-speed 2.5 Generation phone, it handles data speeds of up to 40 kps, four times the current European standard.

HOST OF HASSLES. The easiest route is to set up a different e-mail account for the mobile phone. But I want access to the e-mail I already have. For this, I read on page 187 of the manual, I must come up with the host name of the computers that handle my mail coming and going, and determine whether my mailbox service provider recommends POP3 or IMAP4 ... Help!

This is not going to happen. I'm not about to get on the horn with a France Telecom help desk and America Online for this information. Life is just too short. Call me lazy, call me spoiled. What I want for my wireless e-mail connection is to click 5 or 6 OKs and let the computer do the work. When a company comes up with a mobile e-mail system that installs itself like that, watch that product fly off the shelves. Sadly, no such luck for Nokia's new Communicator. By Steve Baker in Paris


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