The phone that knows too much

The phone that knows too much

In Asia and Europe, colour displays and rich messaging are considered baseline requirements for mobile phones. But in the US, most mobile phones are just smaller, lighter remakes of the original, bulky car phone. Most US users expect their mobile phones to do only one thing: make and receive voice calls.

That drives worldwide manufacturers such as Nokia and Motorola absolutely nuts. Elsewhere, premium services make handsets and networks profitable; the US subscriber hauling around a barebones phone with a voice-only rate plan is not making phones or networks better. So Nokia’s 3650 is a surprise. It is precisely the kind of do-everything device that US consumers and businesses won’t buy: It shoots pictures and movie clips, it makes audio recordings, it sends and receives email using your existing mail server, it surfs the Web in colour, and it will link your Bluetooth-equipped notebook to the Internet. If two Nokia 3650 users are in a basement conference room and blocked from cellular access, the phones can hop over to Bluetooth to send messages, share files, and exchange address book entries.

We poured over the 3650’s technical documentation for weeks before we received the phone and the more we read, the more we thought, ‘This isn’t a phone.’ Quite right; voice calls are almost tangential to its design, although with a speakerphone, voice dialling, and a backlit keypad, it does voice as well as any mobile phone we’ve used. The 3650 is clearly a networked pocket computer, a portable mesh node, a reference platform for developers.

The 3650’s networking capabilities are astounding. The phone is designed to move voice, text, audio, photos, video, and arbitrary data anywhere. The phone supplied for review was activated on T-Mobile’s network. In areas that provide only voice service, the unit works as a basic mobile phone, and can send and receive SMS messages. In a General Packet Radio Service (GPRS) service area, it can browse the Web and access email through T-Mobile’s gateways.

Beyond that, the 3650 defines its own course. The 3650’s email capabilities use standard IMAP, POP, and SMTP protocols, so the phone can pull messages from multiple mail servers. The email feature is easy to configure (a set of PC-based tools is provided on CD). The lack of an alphanumeric keyboard is a hindrance for sending replies, but the 3650’s display and Symbian GUI are exceptional for reading incoming messages.

For situations that call for keyboard capabilities, the 3650 will push and pull files to a notebook using its Bluetooth interface. We set up an Apple Computer PowerBook G4 with a D-Link Bluetooth device. The 3650 is not configured into Apple’s iSync multi-app synchronisation software yet, but I had no trouble bouncing text files and address book entries between the PowerBook and the phone. The PowerBook recognised the 3650 as a Bluetooth modem for Internet connections. Mac OS X makes using the 3650 as an Internet gateway nearly effortless, and T-Mobile’s GPRS data speed was better than we expected.

Encouraging customisation

As mentioned, the 3650 is more of a development platform than a consumer device. Nokia’s C++ tools run under Microsoft Visual Studio 6. J2ME (Java 2 Micro Edition) programs can be created using just about any Java environment and sent to the phone via the wireless network.

For this phone, custom development is where the action is. The built-in PIM applications are quite good for a phone and make the best possible use of the 176-by-208 colour display. But Nokia has exposed and documented the phone’s networking and graphical features to developers in great detail, and developers can grab the tools and documentation online. The efficient Java run-time encourages the kind of small-scale casual and inhouse development that leads to innovation, while the C++ tools hit the performance targets required by commercial software.

Looking at the 3650 and Nokia’s rapidly evolving tools and documentation, it’s impossible to rank Nokia’s approach against chief mobile platform rivals RIM, Palm, and Microsoft. It is clear that Nokia has the engineering skill to squeeze an incredible set of capabilities into a small device, and that Nokia is committed to supplying developers with the tools they need to target the Series 60 platform.

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