A Week with the Nokia N8: Can Symbian Survive?

I'm in London this week at Nokia World and it's a defining moment for Nokia. Last week Nokia announced their CEO's departure, and new CEO (and Microsoft alum) Stephen Elop. Nokia phones once defined state of the art and the S60 platform defined the modern smartphone era in 2002. Today, in a world dominated by news of the latest Android and iOS devices, Nokia looks to drive forward their relevance and innovation.Among the plethora of news, one of the highlights is Nokia officially unveiling theĀ N8, their flagship device for the Symbian^3 platform. I've been using one for the last week or so and I can safely say it's the best Symbian phone I've ever used. The question remains, though: is that good enough in today's competitive market?

The hardware is first rate. The N8 packs a 3.5-inch OLED display, anodized aluminum body (my test unit is a great shade of orange) and 16GB of storage with a microSD slot for added expansion. In addition to the standard Nokia charger port there's a micro USB port that also charges the phone (at last) along with HDMI-out. Like other vendors, Nokia's gone with a non-removable battery that got me through a hard day with no trouble.

The star of the show is the latest version of the OS which is now fully touch enabled. Unlike the N97, the N8 OS is designed for touch and touch only. In practice it works well. The portrait keyboard is a standard phone layout but a quick turn brings up a full QWERTY that's about as good as anything I've used. Performance is fast and fluid and the OLED display shines bright.

There are three customizable home screens that can be customized with a variety of widgets. The OVI store offers a decent selection of others. Overall, they work well and update quickly. Nokia's mail system supports a variety of email services including Exchange (but doesn't work well with Gmail configured as an Exchange client, my inbox would never sync correctly) although there's support for only one Exchange account, something that feels dated these days.

The UI is cleaner then prior iterations and shows the Symbian heritage which is both good and bad. There are still too many settings buried in too many places for easy configuration, but once configured things work well. Current Symbian users will feel right at home, new users might struggle a bit. The built in 12-megapixel camera works well and could easily replace most dedicated digital cameras for most tasks.

What the platform lacks is apps. While there's a decent selection of "table stakes" apps in the OVI store, the selection pales relative to the competition. If app selection is important, you might need to look elsewhere.

Overall the N8 is an impressive device. Two years ago, it would have blown everything else in the market away. Today's competitive landscape is a different story. From a hardware perspective, the N8 can hold up against most of the today's devices. The software is a different story and while this version of the platform makes great strides in usability and functionality, there's still much Nokia needs to do to drive the software platform forward.

Current Nokia users will likely love the N8. If Nokia can get the N8 to the US at an attractive price with a carrier, it might be a modest success with users looking for something different. In Nokia's strong European markets, it will likely sell well. The N8 shows Nokia can keep pace with today's fast moving market but not as the leader of the pack, and the platform needs to further evolve if Nokia wants to maintain both relevance and leadership going forward.