Nokia 9000 to E90 – RIP Communicator

Could the Communicator have survived the iPhone if Nokia had gone further?

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.

The Nokia 9000i

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).

A world before iPhones…

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 9110

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.

With the majority of people worldwide now being equipped with the sort of facilities and applications the prescient Communicator introduced, such as mobile internet access, true email and integrated contacts, the 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.

Why didn’t the E90 dominate the world?

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.

How the Nokia Communicator evolved

Nokia’s communicator range differed and pioneered by combining cellular data and a PDA with a phone, rather than a dedicated radio modem. All of the Communicator models bar the E90 operated as a GEOS or EPOC-based PDA with an attached GSM telephone, with sufficient integration that they appeared almost seamless to the end user – contacts from the PDA were accessible on the phone, when open as a computer the handset went into speakerphone mode. The GEOS models had very little third-party support; what was available reflected the high-end nature of the devices and the “enterprise” client base.

 9000/i9110/i9210/i95009300/b/iE90
Year1997
1998 - i
1999
2000 - i
2001
2002 - i
200420052007
NetworksGSM 900
GSM 1800
GSM 900
GSM 1800
GSM 850 (9290)
GSM 900
GSM 1800
GSM 1900

HSCSD data
GSM 900
GSM 1800
GSM 1900

GPRS
EDGE
GSM 850 (9300b)
GSM 900
GSM 1800
GSM 1900
GSM 850
GSM 900
GSM 1800
GSM 1900

WCDMA
HSDPA
BluetoothNoNoNoYesYesYes
IrDAYesYesYesYesYesYes
RS-232YesYesYesYesYesNo
USBNoNoNoNoNoYes
WiFiNoNoNoYes9300: No
9300b: No
9300i: Yes
Yes
RAM2MB2MB128MB
Storage
Memory
2MB2MB
Memory
Expansion
MMCMMC1/2 MMC1/2 MMCMicro SD
Processor386
24MHz
486
33MHz
ARMOMAP
ARM 9
150MHz
OMAP
ARM 9
150MHz
OMAP
ARM11
330MHz
Front
Display
MonoMonoMonoColourColourColour
Main
Display
Mono (4 shades)
640 x 200
Mono (4 shades)
640 x 200
Colour (8-bit)
640 x 200
Colour (8-bit)
640 x 200
Colour (8 bit)
640 x 200
Colour (16-bit)
Operating
System
Computer:
GEOS 3.0/DOS
Computer:
GEOS 4.0/DOS
Computer:
EPOC
Computer:
Symbian S80
Handset:
Symbian S40
Computer: Symbian S80
Handset: Symbian S40
Symbian S60v3
Firmware
Versions
9000
v6.70
9000i
v6.70
9110
v6.01
9110i
v6.08
9210
v4.13
9210i
v6.00
9290
v3.35
9500
v6.72

Firmware updates from Nokia Service Centre only.
9300
v5.22
9300i
v5.50

Firmware updates from Nokia Service Centre Only
400.34.93

Unlike previous Communicator variants, the E90 shares the OS with a wide range of mid-range and high-end Nokia handsets, providing it with additional competition from within Nokia’s own product range. The N95 soon undermined the E90’s position as Nokia’s flagship smartphone, whilst the Blackberry-like E61/E71 model provided the hardware keyboard at much lower cost and without the style-challenged quirks of the “butterfly” E70/6820 models.

With an initial UK RRP of £625 (typical selling prices from outlets such as eXpansys being just under £550) and limited availability on contract (Vodafone and O2 were the only UK providers carrying this handset, on business tariffs only, and both are providers that offer exceptionally poor value Voice & Data packages), the E90 didn’t stack up when compared with Windows Mobile based devices for value – at least on paper.

The specification runs to a 3.2Mpixel camera with AF and flash, A-GPS (GPS when bought with operator branded firmware), WiFi and Bluetooth, the usual acceptable-but-not-stunning memory allowances (in context, the 128MB/80MB free is really only impressive if you have come to the E90 from previous Communicator models), and an unusual 800 x 352 internal screen resolution. The processor was clocked at 332MHz, when high-end (and cheaper) Windows systems like the HTC Athena/Universal were sporting 624MHz CPUs.

Adding to the E90’s woes, early models suffered microphone problems and marks on the screen from the keyboard; a later revision can be identified by a raised section below the space bar rather than a consistently chamfered edge.

Looking back Nokia had pulled off a masterstroke. Bringing the Communicator inline with the Series 60 handsets (at the time, rarely viewed as “smartphones”) gave the business applications of S60 a boost and brought a wider range of apps to the Communicator. Even so, swimming against the tide of the iPhone was never going to work – in some ways, the E90 marks the beginning of the end for Nokia’s domination.

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