Nokia challenges developers to think outside the phone

You'd be wise to learn what a Nokia Series 60 handset can do before you settle on a mobile platform

You don't have to be a programmer to be a mobile innovator. All you need to do is open your eyes to the fact that a smart phone or QWERTY handset is a personal computer, sans legacy baggage. In the future, user-facing computers will have more in common with the high-end mobile devices of today than with the eight-core desktops and quad-core notebooks of 2009.

We're conditioned to see mobile handsets through the lens of evolution. Car phones became cell phones, and from there took over for pagers, PIMs, PDAs, Polaroid cameras, digital voice recorders, media players, Day-Timers, the photos of nieces and nephews in our wallets, and so on. Each of these steps has taken years, mostly due to the market's narrow view of the purpose and potential of mobile devices. They're not car phones plus plus. They are not purpose-specific platforms. They are mobile computers, plain and simple.

While it's easy to imagine the iPhone as Apple TV hit with a maximum-strength shrink ray, it's harder to look at a Nokia Series 60 device without classifying it as a feature phone, smart phone, gadget-lover bait, enterprise phone, or the like. If you can make yourself think outside the box with regard to a commercial mobile device's potential, so much becomes possible.

In the case of BlackBerry, Android (at present, limited to Java), iPhone 2.0, and Windows Mobile in the post-.NET age, exploration of those possibilities is limited by boundaries drawn and enforced by manufacturers and wireless operators -- limitations that keep many devices stuck in the phone box. In contrast, Nokia offers developers a PC-like range of choices in tools, languages, and APIs: Locally runnable AJAX and widgets, Adobe SWF, standard C with Berkeley sockets, Java MIDP, Python, Symbian C++, and ARM assembly language. The steak comes with the requisite sizzle: Every Nokia Series 60 device is a media player, camera, PDA, mail client, Internet terminal, and all the rest. But the Nokia mobile platform's real power lies beneath the top-layer apps that Nokia and your wireless operator burned into your device's default firmware.

Nokia hasn't done a very good job of exposing the Nokia platform's riches –- the full-fledged computer-ness that is built into handsets –- but that's changing. Forum Nokia is the developer relations and initiatives arm of the cellular handset giant, and you can tell from the moment you hit its landing page that you're not far from transforming your understanding of what the platform can do.

Nokia's dev tools choices and membership levels and tech support policies are less flexible than I'd like, but I have to give Nokia credit. Nokia has anticipated and answered all of the show-stopping, schedule-derailing questions that developers and enterprises could have in the form of vastly improved documentation, Flash e-learning modules, and forums in which Forum Nokia engineers participate. Try it. If you have a Nokia phone, head to the Forum Nokia site, and within fifteen minutes you'll know exactly what it can and can't do, and the ideas will start to flow.

Nokia's challenge is to get people to tune in. After examining its options, Forum Nokia took the not-uncommon approach of declaring a developer contest. Nokia is putting up $150,000 in prize money, along with trips to the Mobile World Congress in Barcelona, for new mobile applications that compete in three categories: Eco-Challenge, Emerging Markets, and Technology Showcase. At a launch event in New York, inventor and visionary Dean Kamen fired the starting pistol for the competition that Nokia has dubbed "Calling All Innovators." If you write code, any kind of code, you need to jump on this. Mobile devices are a veritable green field for developers and forward-thinking IT managers alike. IT should acquaint itself with the characteristics of the Series 60 platform and pick some of its brighter talent to dream up and pursue world-changing ideas. If you're a code diva, the Technology Showcase category is the place to show off your chops to a world audience.

For the Emerging Markets category, consider that there are people for whom a mobile device is the closest thing to a PC for miles, and cellular data is the only digital connection to a larger world. While multiple vendors are trying to make the $100 laptop PC to serve emerging markets, mountains of refurbished and donated Series 60 devices are ready to distribute for the cost of transportation. Even long-discontinued devices are surprisingly capable computers. Consider accessibility as an emerging market as well. Many Nokia devices have integrated speech synthesis and recognition. Finally, you might look at services or applications that are supplied in a limited number of languages and internationalize them.

For the Eco-Challenge, I suggest considering Nokia devices' prowess as radio transceivers. The cost of equipping environmental sensors (including current sensors for power monitoring) with Bluetooth, Wi-Fi, infrared, or even GSM signaling is dropping fast, and Series 60 native code can process, log, and respond to sensor input with minimal lag. Nokia devices are loaded with sensors of their own. Depending on what you want to measure, the cheapest sensor may be the Series 60 device itself.

My point is less about Calling All Innovators than it is about seeing mobile devices from top-tier manufacturers, with open and well-documented APIs, for what they are. They are mobile computers, capable of things you'd never dream of asking a smart phone to do. Someone once imagined running a Web server in the background on a Nokia device, and someone else wondered what it would be like to drive a handset's display and keyboard remotely. Both of these stereotype-busting applications exist. Take them as inspiration and run with it.

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