The Great Hardware/Software Divide

Posted on 07/04/2011


After messing about with one of Nokia’s modern day battery champions, the E72 and then enjoying a fruitful day with the awesome camera on my hero phone, the N8, I got thinking into what makes a great smartphone, specifically for me. Now of course everyone’s mileage will differ and hence their needs will vary, and as such there is no such thing as the perfect smartphone or in fact, mobile phone. For a lot of people a smartphone is grave overkill, while a feature phone is basically a horror device for. I spent an hour with a Nokia 6500s while my N8 was getting some beauty treatment a week ago and I hated every second with the device.

Now knowing what I’m looking for further emphasized the lack of THE perfect device, that killer phone to end all phones…until the next wave of advancements, something like the Nokia N95 for Swiss Armyness, or the original iPhone in shepherding the touchscreen era. Everything is a compromise of sorts, and as such if I were to pick a device today, which would still be the N8 by the way, it would be the one with the least compromises, not necessarily the most pros. And this compromise can be simply stated as a hardware/software divide. It seems today, with smartphone being defined as great connected devices with large high resolution screens, ie internet tablets, and not necessarily great converged devices, smartphone makers will either choose great software or great hardware, but never both, and almost always the former. The closest anyone comes, as long as you are partial to the ‘Apple’ way, is the iPhone and even that is a compromise in favour of software.

For me, I still, despite growing up in the internet age, favour the converged device approach. I want to be the solo gadget man and as such compromising on the hardware will force me to have to have that extra gadget. Thus I would rather pick a device with stellar hardware and adequate software, because in essence I am willing to go that extra mile, to say have to download an alternate web browser to avoid having to use the rubbish one that shipped with my phone, as opposed to having to strategically pose my mates next to a light source when taking photos in a dimly lit nightclub.

And that is why I will keep coming back to the N8.

Yes the Symbian browser sucks…really really bad, but I can download Opera Mobile or Mini Browser 3.0 (which incidentally scores 258 on the HTML5 test).  But for that moment when I want to capture a precious moment after sunset I have the Xenon flash on the N8, and if I was rocking a device like the Samsung Galaxy S, I would be well a bit screwed, or have to carry a standalone camera.

And that’s the clincher for me. Software can be improved, but hardware is fixed. The camera, the flash, the microphones, the screen, the ports, the radios, you’re stuck with it, so if it’s rubbish, that’s it. Software revision happens all the time, and one just has to hope that the software engineers have the foresight and the energy to spot bugs, fix them and introduce new enhancements that will not cripple the hardware. As an example of that, the awesomeness that is the N8 camera shipped with video recording at 720p capped at 25 FPS and to the dismay of many no continuous autofocus (CAF). And now there has been confirmation, after some intrepid hackers proved it was possible, that an official update will bring 30 FPS and CAF to the N8.

Playing the hardware game can also be a painful affair though. Just googling N8 and PR 2.0, one will find many an article with the comments section filled with an incredible amount of vitriol directed at Nokia for the ‘delay’ in rolling out the update, since renamed ‘Anna’. In November last year already 50 enhancements were promised for the software neutered (in a modern internet connected age) Symbian devices in early 2011. It is July and the enhancements though they have been previewed in both official and unofficial avenues, are rather conspicuous in their absence, at least if you were one of the early adopters to whom these enhancements were initially promised.  And when the platform is given a vague end of life (EOL) by the CEO, the hardware game becomes even more difficult if like me, the ideal hardware is powered by said EOLd software platform. I know I’ll probably never get a Kindle/Nook client or an Evernote client. I’m stuck with a rubbish excuse for a social network client with no official ones forthcoming, the chat client is a bit rubbish, and I don’t ever expect a native Google+ client when even the web app, despite the Googling stating Symbian IS supported, returns a ‘browser no longer supported ‘ message.

But like I said, it’s a game of compromise. There is a network of developers that has already given rise to a phenomenal twitter client, a host of Facebook apps that do the job, Dropbox access and a brilliant Read it Later client. The Nokia N9 does gives me hope that Nokia can bring all the core apps to a competitive level, and things look okay with Anna promised by August , and improving the usability of Symbian, and details of devices running a refreshed version of Symbian, Belle, emerging, and the refresh looks good . For my needs third party developers are taking care of the rest. Thus I feel confident that for the rest of 2011 and heading into 2012, I can continue to use my N8 with all it’s hardware goodies, some of which like the camera are and are likely to remain class leading for a while, in the bag, and have some nice bits of software, core and third party available to keep it useful and current, amidst the wave of web connected behemoths.

Posted in: Apps, Email, Mobile, N8, Nokia, Rant, Symbian, Tips