Thoughts on S60

reflections on the most popular mobile operating system worldwide

Why buy an unlocked device in 2009?

with 9 comments

I’ve been chewing this question over in my head for a couple days now and a couple of recent articles really made things much more clear to me. I apologize in advance for the long read, but I think it will be worth your time if you care to give it.

How it was.

There was a time not too many years ago when owning an unlocked S60 device really meant something. They were usually much more expensive, freed users of any of the carrier restrictions placed on such devices due to branded firmware, and had a larger feature set than what was offered by carriers as well. I remember when I bought my 6630 with a 1.3mp camera when everyone else around me was first getting introduced to cameraphones altogether. When 1.3 became the standard, I was upgrading the 2mp camera on my N70 to the 3.2mp camera on the N80 and taking advantage of wifi on a phone, a thought that was unheard of by any carrier at the time. When the world finally got around to using 2mp as the standard and started rolling out provider-based GPS solutions, I was dropping a silly amount of money on my first N95 with a real GPS chipset and a whopping 5mp sensor, along with all of the other features I had grown used to over the years.

Despite the cost for these devices, there was an obvious advantage to them that was worth a conversation with someone who was looking for something that was more than what AT&T or Verizon could offer them. Since I started using S60, I’ve been so enthusiastic about it that I influenced more than a dozen friends, family members, and strangers to buy an unlocked Nokia rather than settle for the mediocre device offerings from carriers that came locked and ready to charge you for every bit of media you consume.

I spent a lot of money over the years to stay at the bleeding edge of this technology, but it was worth it.

Fast forward to today. Where are we?

-The iPhone undoubtedly has completely changed the market and how people perceive mobile devices. It appeals to people who struggled with Windows Mobile for its incredible ease of use, fashionistas who want a gorgeous piece of equipment in their pocket, mid-to-heavy power users who want an impressive device in their pocket, and it has become the new benchmark for a tier of device above your everyday cell phone without the complications of your typical smartphone offerings (usually Windows Mobile, Blackberry, and a bit of Palm still floating around).

-The HTC Touch Pro, a worthy iPhone competitor, will be offered by Sprint, AT&T, and Verizon for the 2008 holiday season.

-Verizon is launching the Blackberry Storm, yet another iPhone competitor, within the next couple weeks (allegedly by Black Friday).

-AT&T has several more devices planned for the holiday launch, including the Blackberry Bold, Samsung Eternity, Incite, Epix, and a few other devices geared towards enhanced messaging.

-In addition to the Touch Pro and the Blackberry Storm, Verizon is also launching the Samsung Omnia with 5mp camera (with many, many features), GPS, and everything else you’d want from a high end Windows Mobile device. It is also due out for this holiday season.

-T-Mobile just launched their first real iPhone contender in both hardware and software, the HTC G1 running Andoid.

Bare in mind, all of these carrier device offerings are new. They are an addition to all of the other devices that have already been rapidly catching up to what’s supposed to be the next generation of high end devices. Verizon had been all over the touch screen bandwagon for a while now with the likes of the HTC Touch, LG Voyager, Dare, Samsung Glyde, and the newly released Motorola Krave.

I’ve gotten to the point where switching to a different device and platform wouldn’t be much of a sacrifice at all if it were easy enough to learn, so what’s to stop anyone else from feeling the exact same? I’ve been with S60 for so long that it feels like second nature, but in a world with iPhones and iPhone-wannabes that are damn near immediately intuitive as soon as you pick it up and are starting to have the exact same feature sets as the once-coveted unlocked, imported smartphone, what does Nokia and/or S60 have that people are really going to want? And what’s going to make it worth the extra money for buying it without a contract?

Some would argue that it’s the operating system, the third party software, and the ease of use makes still makes it worthwhile. I would agree, but your average consumer wouldn’t. Part of the brilliance of S60 was a community of users with active development of the platform adding functionality on an almost daily basis. While that’s still very strong, there’s a much stronger presence available elsewhere now. Going back to the iPhone, Apple (and the community responsible for jailbreaking) took that same idea and unified all of the apps into a single source for convenient installation right on the device iteself, much like you’d see from a Linux distro. Speaking of which, Android has now done the exact same thing, and Blackberry is about to join the club as well. Nokia’s version is a patheric application called “Download!”, available on devices years before the iPhone, but it was hardly used then either. Download! brought a very small fraction of the most popular S60 applications for users to install right on their device with a clunky interface that doesn’t even compare to what’s available now.

The point? In both hardware and software, there are very few unlocked devices (current and available soon) that offer more than what’s already available from a carrier.

Why would somebody buy an N85 for $400+ dollars when a Samsung Omnia can be had for $100 less with a contract? It’s not worth it anymore.

I’m very content with my decision to buy the 5800 XpressMusic when the US version is available. I’m at a point in my life where having the absolute latest and greatest phone with all of the high end features is much less important to me than having a device I enjoy using that still matches what I need and what I need it to do on a daily basis. The difference now is that I also have no choice. Nokia doesn’t have a flagship that blows everything else out of the water like they used to year after year.

Nokia has sat at the top of their hill for a very, very long time, gradually milking out new phones with a minor upgrade here, a US version there, with the capability to be the dominant presence in all of its markets. With all of the recent changes, it’s not difficult to see how easily other manufacturers have been able to slowly eat away at their numbers.


What does the future hold?

Nokia has three options if they ever intend to get back into the US market.

1) Get agreements with carriers.

2) Sell unlocked phones at competitive prices.

3) Start making phones worth the extra money and market the hell out of them.

Nokia is never going to have to worry about their doors closing. The lion’s share of their market is still heavily dominated by their lower-end handsets and most of these thoughts are intended for the US audience only. If Nokia intends to stay as successful as they have been for the past several years, then it’s time they start worrying. They have several new services that, if done properly, could retake control of the entire market; they just need to do it right.

I used to think about a day when things would change in the US. I thought that everyone would eventually catch on to the idea of unlocked phones, start to phase out the carrier as their source for new devices, and we’d gradually see an uprising of interest in mobile technology beyond just calling and sending SMS. Well, now we have, except the company that has done it was the newcomer to the market, and they did it with an even stronger relationship to mobile providers than ever before. Everyone asks “Who are you with?” instead of “Who makes that phone?” more than ever and we’re even further away from that changing anytime soon.


As a fan of technology in general, I’m very excited to see how much everything is about to change even after they already have so much. Though I am still very happy with Nokia’s offerings, I wouldn’t have any reservations about purchasing a device that offered more for less, and I’m sure the majority of everyone else in the US feels the same way. 2009 holds a lot of new devices from a lot of manufacturers. The last thing Nokia needs to be doing is releasing rehashes of their previous years devices with new reflective black casings.

After all, that banner up there is only a jpeg and changing the URL for my blog would be very inexpensive. 😉


9 Responses

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  1. I actually enjoy owning an unlocked handset (currently an E71) and being somewhat of a “mobile elitist”. And the fact that Fido, my Canadian carrier has an absolutely awful lineup of handsets kind of forced the issue for me…


    October 27, 2008 at 12:44 pm

  2. […] and my thoughts on where Nokia/S60 should be headed. Note: I was also influenced by a post on another blog about this very same issue. […]

  3. Jonny interesting article. I had to make another rambling of my own … if you have time please check it out.

    I did link your site here as well. Hope you don’t mind. If this isn’t appropriate please let me know.

    Donny aka prom1

    October 29, 2008 at 1:54 am

  4. Great article, and, as evident from the discussion on HoFo, I think many people share your malcontent with the current situation Nokia has found itself here in the States. Many of our next phones may be branded…and that may turn out to be okay.


    October 31, 2008 at 1:34 am

  5. Personally I prefer an unlocked device because I travel, being locked into a particular carrier is just unacceptable. But thats just me, if a person rarely goes overseas then theres no point in spending extra for the freedom.


    November 27, 2008 at 1:54 am

  6. I enjoyed your blog post, Jonny. I think you have characterized the cell phone industry fairly accurately here. As the average consumer continues to demand more features, carriers will be virtually required to offer said features if they are to keep their current market share, much less take customers from rival carriers. This is precisely why Verizon has finally begun to loosen the reigns on GPS enabled phones in their lineup. As 2009 comes and goes, I think we will see more and more carriers offering devices without blocking WiFi, GPS and other tech. They’ll simply require an all-you-can-eat buffet price to use those devices on their network. Sprint has started doing just that by forcing users into their higher-priced plans for certain phones.

    As for Motorolla, Nokia, Samsung, and the like, as long as shareholders demand lower production costs, R&D will suffer, and new technology coming to the public will be stiffled. This is highlighted in your post with regards to Nokia, and their current offerings.


    December 21, 2008 at 6:20 am

  7. Nice post. And from a lot of perspectives, its too spot on. Of course, you give the reasons for 2009 to actually be a banner year for unbranded (not unlocked 😉 ) mobiles…

    …the incentive for carriers to have the latest (relevant) tech at lower prices is indeed the reason for the dearth of models out now. Makes such as Nokia have had that position for a long time of being able to move past those strained carrier relationships, and create a market for their devices that are devoid of carrier banded effects. This was good for a time, but even as it did in the past, the battle ground is the same – innovation from manufacturers has to be hands, feet, and heads above what the carriers can do in order to get a look from a consumer, and (now) has to be at a more accessible price.

    Given the time since the release of the N95, which one could say was a bit of a watershed moment for unbranded versus branded devices, one should see 2009 being a time when either carriers get the most innovative things ever, or manufacturers such as Samsung and Nokia take innovation into their own hands and literally jump again two years+ ahead of what the normal customer wants.

    Such a move keeps the carrier in the front of the mind as an innovator, and in some respects, protects that profit area from those users who want the best years before carriers would be able to market that to their normal users.

    Not saying that Nokia or others will, only that its possible for 2009. And I think, just given from hints around the mobile sphere, that it just might happen.


    January 3, 2009 at 3:37 am

  8. IamU stole my thunder. A branded phone is fine if you never leave home. I cross the globe monthly with layovers in places i can’t even make calls but am able to use 3g for sms and internet. I would never ever consider a locked phone again even though i’ve been with t-mobile since they were voicestream and some local company in socal. To me, a locked phone is a ball and chain that prevents me from traveling.
    Besides, when i’m home in indonesia, it’s nearly impossible to even find a locked phone. People change service providers like i change my mind and sim cards are about 1 dollar so locked phones would be useless.
    Nice article by the way.


    January 7, 2009 at 5:02 pm

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