I was not one of those ‘business types’ who went out and bought the Nokia 9000 Communicator in 1996, mainly because I was still in college and nowhere near able to pass myself off as a business type. I was more ‘tatty backpack’ than ‘leather briefcase’! By the time the Communicator had evolved into its last iteration, the E90 in 2007, I was very content and satisfied with my Nokia 6131 flip phone, and I had no desire at all to switch that out for a full QWERTY keyboard. Around the same time the E90 was released, Nokia had also entered the BlackBerry-style realm with the E61i, another take on the full QWERTY keyboard but in a candybar form factor. It seemed for a little while that all phones either had a numeric ‘T9’ keypad or a full QWERTY keyboard in either of the aforementioned styles until, of course, a certain smartphone was launched that same year in 2007 that did away will all number and letter buttons. Hmmm, what could that have been…? (Actually I’ve been informed that the iPhone was not the first phone to do away with alphanumeric buttons – the Nokia 7710 of 2004 was. Another Nokia achievement!)
Since that industry-changing year, the humble QWERTY Nokia phone has become something of a disappearing act, and now in 2013, we can look back and exclaim, “Wow, the last fully featured QWERTY smartphone was the E6, and that was 2011!” I know there has been a rash of S40 phones with full BB-style QWERTYs, but the E6 represents the last in a line of phones that hark from the Communicator days, when your full-keyboard device could do pretty much anything and multitask like the best of them, something I don’t think the Ashas are quite capable of…yet.
For me, the QWERTY craze started in early 2010 when I purchased my first unsubsidized sim-free Nokia, the E75, which had been released about 6 months before I bought it. This phone was awesome; it had the standard numeric T9 keypad on the front, (very handy for one-handed situations like hanging on in a bus while punching out a quick text) but it also slid up to reveal a full (and rather wonderful) QWERTY landscape keyboard. At the time I was not really aware of how quick and nippy other phones could be, so its sluggishness (thanks to its rather weak 369MHz processor) and the sheer lack of RAM were things I could live with. Sure, I would type a few words and they wouldn’t appear on the screen for a few seconds, but I wasn’t too bothered by that, why should I have been? (It’s funny, in 2013 that would drive me bonkers!) My E75 could email, text, browse the web, play music, take decent photos and even wake me up in the morning! It was my first taste of a smartphone that could do everything even if, with its diminutive screen, it wasn’t as snazzy as the iPhone 3GS. I simply didn’t care because I loved my E75. Plus – it was RED!
But inevitably, I wanted more. More horsepower, better apps, a bigger screen – NAY! A touchscreen! I was certainly not ready to jump in and buy a full-touchscreen device like the Nokia 5800 Xpress Music. Ooh no, I couldn’t imagine myself stabbing away at glass or plastic to actually type words, so I set about looking for a device that would satisfy my needs for a big and bright screen (the E75’s was a tiny 2.4”) but with a full landscape QWERTY keyboard. And that’s when I discovered the amazing Maemo 5 powered Nokia N900.
Released to the world in November 2009, it was the 4th iteration in a line of Linux-powered internet tablets that had started with the Nokia 770 in 2005. The 3rd iteration, the N810 also included a full QWERTY but did not contain any phone functionality (except Skype), so it was not something I purchased at the time. The N900, which I bought in September 2010, was just about as perfect a phone as I could buy. For me, the 3.5” display was amazing, the QWERTY keyboard just about perfect, and the Maemo community was just wonderful (and still is) and I slowly discovered that there was a whole underworld of developers and coders and enthusiasts who would tweak and mod the N900 until it was nothing like the stock version that came out of the box, but that was cool, because the N900 could become the most unique device on the planet. In many ways it still is, but even this awesome piece of hardware had its shortcomings that finally, after nearly a year, ate away at my patience until I couldn’t help but think about the next big thing. I needed Nokia Maps and I had it, but I needed voice navigation with the maps, and I didn’t have that on the N900. Why, Nokia?! I needed a better battery than the paltry 6 hours I was getting on one charge, and I needed a few apps that just weren’t appearing in the Maemo repositories or the (then) Ovi Store.
But more than anything I craved a touchscreen that had a physical keyboard. By the time I was primed and ready to change phones again it was mid-2011, and the market was flooded with touch-only devices; the iPhone 4 was out and in just about everyone’s sweaty palms, even if they weren’t holding the thing correctly (haha). But I wasn’t attracted to that or any of the other flashy units I saw out on the street. How come? Well, like many people, I’ve been addicted to Nokia phones for a long time. Since my first day working at the Vodafone Centre in High Wycombe, UK way back in 1994, I’ve been smitten. So yes, there were other options, but I was only interested in Nokias, and luckily for me, there was one such new Nokia that had been out for a few months, and my mouth was almost watering.
It was announced at Nokia World in September 2010, almost a year before I finally got my hands on one. It was described as “big, but also beautiful” by Nokia’s Niklas Savander at the launch event, and, despite shipment delays (it wasn’t available for purchase until almost 6 months later!) I finally gripped my mouse and clicked ‘Buy It Now’, and the Nokia E7 was on its way to me.
The E7 was like a dream come true. The absolutely beautiful design of the phone, the fantastic full landscape QWERTY with the gorgeous 4” AMOLED CBD capacitive display that graciously opened up at a useful and inviting viewing angle, was just jaw-dropping for me. I instantly fell in love with this Symbian beast, and things got even better when not long after buying it, Symbian^3 had its first major upgrade to the very nice n’ pretty Symbian Anna. Superb!
Inevitably, my love for the E7 had its ups and downs, like all great relationships! My main bugbear and Nokia’s most perplexing design decision was the camera. Sure, it boasted an 8MP shooter, and watching the YouTube promos made you think, “Great! Can’t wait!” But then you realized that Nokia had decided to not continue the line of decent 5MP auto-focus cameras that were welcome components of classics such as the E72. Instead, it came with an EDoF camera, and so much has been written about EDoF in the last few years, it can be summed up quickly: it does great video, it can snap pics very quickly because no focusing is involved, photos are sharp and decent in good light, but macro close up shots are totally out. This is because EDoF cannot include anything within around 40cm or 18” in its super-sharp photo party. WHY, NOKIA, WHY?! Why put such a lame camera unit in a business device? Any E72 owner will tell you, that if they needed to snap a receipt or quickly shoot the details of a business card, or even photograph some notes or a design idea ready to email off to the world, their AF 5MP camera would do the job splendidly. Enter the E7, and its blurry mess. Oh dear. Oh dear indeed.
But I didn’t really buy the E7 for the camera, I bought it for the QWERTY keyboard, so for a while I could deal with its main shortcoming. As a smartphone it was a JOY to use. The E7 does offer an onscreen keyboard, but I will be honest and say I hardly ever used it. It’s not exactly what you’d call ‘well-designed’ and it’s not fun using it. But typing on those hardware keys was just sublime, plenty of room for my busy thumbs, and the best part was, I could leave it in its opened state on my desk and easily shoot off a quick text or email reply without even picking it up. Just great. You could tell that much thought had gone into the keys’ design and the layout of the keyboard itself; it just made perfect sense, and I loved it.
But other shortcomings included a cpu that couldn’t quite cut it (Angry Birds would pause and stutter, even with no other apps running and being in Offline mode), and the battery, which lasted most of the day but not really into the evening. And this time it was made worse because the E7 has a sealed battery, so couldn’t be quickly switched out halfway through a busy day. Yes, remember a busy day is something a business user might experience, so they might opt for a business phone. Sigh, palm-face, shake head slowly.
Now, I must be clear at this point: I loved my E7. Sure the camera was no good at taking close-up shots of flowers and pets, but it did take decent outdoor photos. The battery didn’t last all day and night, but I could top it up at work during the day. So it really wasn’t all bad. The overall design of the E7 was just too much to ignore, I felt I owned a masterpiece of design. And when Symbian Belle came along, I was even more satisfied.
So what happened next in my QWERTY keyboard smartphone adventure? Well, Nokia stopped making them! It was all-in on Windows Phone, and while HTC had produced a very nice QWERTY WP7 phone, Nokia had not (and still hasn’t) launched a QWERTY device running Microsoft’s OS. And anyway, by the end of 2011, another Nokia beauty had been parading its goods down the catwalk, and this was something I simply could not resist. Unbelievably to me, I was placing an order for a phone that was touchscreen only. No QWERTY. I felt torn, I felt anxious, but I was enamored, more than I ever had before. More than with my E75, more than the N900, more than my wonderful E7. And along came, the Nokia N9.
Just before the N9’s actual launch in June 2011, there were rumors galore in the Maemo forum site, talk.maemo.org – people in the know were hinting that the N900’s successor would not have a QWERTY keyboard, and the fury was brewing. Maemo fans could simply not believe that Nokia would imitate Apple and produce an iPhone-esque Maemo6 phone, and I was part of the noisy crowd bleating disappointment and disbelief. And then it was launched in Singapore and the truth was out. No QWERTY. But the sheer design of both the N9’s hardware and software were just too much for me to resist. I was going to join the ever-growing masses who typed and texted on glass!
To be honest, yping on the N9 was a very quick learning curve, and I was utterly surprised at how easily I picked up onscreen typing. It helps that the onscreen keyboard of the MeeGo-Harmattan N9 is one of the best out there (according to the many positive reviews it received) and with a few developer tweaks and mods, it’s even better. Plus there’s always Swype as another option, which is also very fast and responsive on the N9’s smooth curved glass.
And that was January 2012, and I have hardly looked back. I have, however, tinkered with other keyboarded phones. I bought a second-hand Nokia N97 Mini and played with it for a little while. The landscape QWERTY was another great Nokia triumph, and I enjoyed using it to type out emails and texts. But the older S60 firmware and the slower behavior of the phone was something that I couldn’t stomach for long, and it had to go back on sale. But I could definitely see how it was some sort of success in 2009, because the form factor and overall physical design of it was superb. And it had an auto-focus camera onboard. So that’s a plus.
I also had a quick fiddle with the Nokia C6, which I purchased for a family member. Another landscape QWERTY, this phone was similar to the E75 in that the screen slid vertically upward to reveal the keyboard, rather than the N97 and E7 style of clicking into place at an angle. The C6’s keyboard was the least pleasurable to use, as I found the buttons a little too squishy and felt a bit cheap, which is fine for the C6’s price point I suppose.
Another phone I couldn’t resist buying for myself is the Nokia E6, Nokia’s last full QWERTY smartphone, released in the summer of 2011 with Symbian Anna straight out of the box. I really like the E6’s thin light design, the bright clear display and the monster battery life. It’s funny how they used a much bigger battery for the E6 and allowed the battery to be changed quickly. This is something I would’ve loved on my E7; either give me a bigger battery, or let me change the darn thing when it’s dead! Ugh. The E6’s classic candybar BlackBerry design is not for everyone. It still takes me a little while to get back into the flow when using the tightly packed keys on the keyboard, but I’m soon up to a decent speed, and for trips when I know I’m going to be doing more texting and emailing than web browsing and taking pictures, I will pop my simcard into the E6. It’s totally reliable on Symbian Anna – I am one of those geeks who will not “upgrade” it to Belle as I know it will lose some of its functionality and gain large unwieldy widgets that I wouldn’t use anyway! Unfortunately Nokia decided that an EDoF camera would be best for this 2011 smartphone, so again, it’s great for general pictures, but pretty useless for up close and personal shots. Yes, another business phone that can’t focus on business card details. Another sigh, another face palm.
But despite all of the above, I now find myself instantly missing my N9’s onscreen keyboard when banging out a tweet or quick email on the E7 or E6. I still wholeheartedly enjoy using my E7 keyboard, and there’s something totally reassuring about pressing actual buttons. But it is ever so slightly slower than gliding over that smooth Gorilla Glass, and so I have to admit that I am now a huge fan of touchscreen keyboards too.
Thanks to the guys at Nokia Innovation, I’ve also had the pleasure of using Nokia’s latest onscreen keyboard, or rather, Microsoft’s! The Nokia Lumia 810 running Windows Phone 8 has a fantastic onscreen keyboard that does a superb job of autocorrecting my mistakes, and offers plenty of clever word suggestions for unknown or misspelled words. It’s fast and smart, and I truly enjoyed using it.
So what now, Nokia? You have a magnificent legacy with the famous Communicator devices from nearly 20 years ago. Have times moved on that much, that touchscreen QWERTYs are the future forever more, sealing physical keyboards firmly in the past? Is the E6 the last QWERTY smartphone you’ll make? Are QWERTYs now forever to be seen only on low-end Asha phones? I really hope not. There surely must be people out there who would buy a full landscape QWERTY keyboarded WP8 phone, or even a candybar QWERTY WP8 phone? BlackBerry will be launching their latest BB10 devices this year, and we know that one of them will be in their characteristic QWERTY design. Will people buy it? Time will tell I suppose. But for me, even though I am fully satisfied with my N9’s keyboard, and I love the WP8 keyboard, I still yearn for a great landscape QWERTY. What would be the perfect mix for me?
Oh yes…of course. The Nokia N950.
But that’s another story! 🙂