Nokia 9000 to E90 – RIP Communicator, Hello Smartphone

I blame Douglas Adams, pretty much. Impressionable young minds were bound to lap up the concept of “information everywhere”, and ever since I first laid my hands on a “slightly smarter than a calculator” portable computer, I’ve wanted my very own ‘Guide’. My brain parsed the Guide as looking a lot like a graphing calculator, so Psion’s Organiser seemed logical enough – but it did so little… 30 years after Adams first popularised the concept, numerous machines now offer that sort of device, albeit with varying degrees of success. Nokia’s E90 is just one of many, but with Nokia’s 13-year track record in the emerging “Smartphone” device class, have they snatched defeat from the jaws of victory by abandoning the Communicator paradigm?

This article began way back in 2008 as a review of the Nokia E90 Vodafone provided as an upgrade that year; my first ever Vodafone handset and my first contract handset was a Nokia 9000 in 1997. It cost – on contract – over £600 and IIRC the handset was paid for on a finance deal alongside the contract costs. I still have that account and I still have the number, but the 9000 has long disappeared into the same forgotten fate as my HP Jornadas, Newtons and Geofox (actually that’s not strictly true – my Geofox One‘s fate isn’t forgotten; it was returned to the firm after the battery connections failed and they kindly went bust before repairing it, losing it forever). I do have a 9110i still, which is functionally very similar.

For newcomers to the smartphone market – it wasn’t always dominated by a rapidly changing group of Windows Mobile or Symbian devices (or in 2010 terms, an endless sea of iPhone-clone touchscreen devices without keyboards). In 2010 the term smartphone seems almost redundant; whilst developers and techy types enjoy challenging the whole existence of the genre (the Nec e808, one of the first handsets to support 3G and video calling, was barely functional as a phone let alone a smartphone – yet happily wore that title – when things like the LG Chocolate are perfectly capable of running apps and being very useful organisers). Put simply, almost every GSM handset produced since 2001 or so is to some degree a “smartphone”.

Nokia’s early entries to the market were somewhat Heath Robinson-esque in appearance, but managed to blend personal organiser functionality with acceptable cellphone performance. As an early Nokia 9000 Communicator user, I was very much aware that the infrastructure and technology were never going to meet expectations, even if they met demands – but technology has advanced considerably and with the bulk of users now being equipped with the soft of facilities and applications the prescient Communicator introduced, such as mobile internet access, true email and integrated contacts, the true smartphone device is truly coming of age. Critically, the cellphone providers have become the ISPs – changing the way data usage is seen by both users, and operators. When the 9000/9110 models were current, you had to dial up your Point of Presence.

Nokia’s interpretation of the “smartphone” device, before the definition expanded to cover almost all cellphones currently produced, has remained constant in terms of physical layout. A “candybar” style handset of moderately larger proportions sporting conventional cellphone buttons and screen, that will open up along one side to reveal a letterbox-format display and full qwerty keyboard. The technology has gone through 4 major variations – the monochrome 9000 and 9110 versions, running an x86 embedded CPU and GEOS operating system, the colour 9210 featuring an ARM-based CPU and EPOC operating system (the Psion-developed OS first seen in the MC2/400 and Series 3), the Symbian Series 80 9300 and 9500, and the latest edition – the Nokia E90 communicator – which runs the popular Symbian Series 60 v3 OS.

Nokia can claim several firsts with the Communicator range. Whilst the Motorola Marco was arguably the first “wireless data enabled PDA” (an ARDIS radio network equipped Newton, essentially), the 9000 was undoubtedly the first widely available, easily accessible smartphone. Prior to this unit, wireless data was the provision of dedicated and expensive acessories like the Option One GSM card used with expensive and limited Handheld PC/PDA devices. Even the PDA pioneers at Palm would take until 1999 to deliver the Palm VII with cellular data, and until 2003 to deliver truly useful models with voice communication.

Read more to see how the Nokia Communicator evolved.

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