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Tablets Not Made of Stone

The new Linux-based Tablet PC from Nokia.

As interest in handheld computers rekindles, Nokia bucked the trend and released a Linux-based handheld. This renewed interest was prompted in large part by the announcements of Microsoft’s Origami platform. What seems strange in all this is the fact that personal digital assistant (PDA), sales continue to decline and handheld computers have never taken the market by storm.

Microsoft’s previous efforts to create handheld computers with larger form-factors than PDAs have failed miserably. I still have a number of Handheld PCs that attest to this. These handheld computers as a category are larger than PDAs and smaller than laptops. The new Origami computers are essentially small Tablet PCs, called UMPCs, or Ultra-Mobile PCs. In other words, the Origami devices are Tablet PCs that you can actually carry and hold in your hand.

Nokia’s 770 Internet Tablet comes in at a slightly smaller size, and a much smaller cost, $359.99. Like Origami PCs, Nokia’s tablet does not include a keyboard. What it does include, though, is a full-fledged Linux system intended for quick Internet access.

Nokia includes the Opera Web browser, an email client, an RSS news reader, and a streaming music player as part of its Linux-based suite of Internet applications. Unlike most other Nokia devices, the Internet Tablet is not a mobile phone. A new software update will support Internet-based calls and instant messaging using Google Talk. Here are some details.

To clearly differentiate the Internet Tablet from PDAs, Nokia does not include anything even remotely intended to manage your schedule or contacts. (You can download add-on applications to manage schedules and contacts, though.

The 5.5-by-3.1-inch tablet sports a beautiful 800×480-pixel screen. Combined with the excellent Opera Web browser, you can access anything on the Web over the built-in wireless 802.11b/g software. You can also use the built-in Bluetooth support to connect to a cell phone to get on the Internet. With an add-on driver, the Nokia tablet supports Bluetooth keyboards, which makes data entry a lot easier. Using the wireless software, the Nokia tablet easily detected my wireless access point, along with the less-secure networks of my neighbors (you can choose which network to use).

With the Nokia tablet, you store your data on an RS-MMC card, a new, smaller form of MMC/SD card. Nokia includes a 64MB card with the device. The RS-MMC card appears as a connected flash drive when you connect the tablet to a PC using the included USB cable. This means you don’t need to install drivers to access your data. In addition, it means you can connect to the tablet using a Windows, Mac OS X, or Linux PC. RS-MMC cards remain harder to find and with smaller capacities than their larger SD and MMC brethren.

The Nokia interface and development platform uses a modified GNOME look called Hildon. The development package, called Maemo is available under free and open-source licenses in the best Linux tradition. Making the software open source becomes very important when you realize that handheld devices seem to come and go. Most devices disappear from the market far too soon, leaving owners with an orphaned device. And, this has proven especially true for Linux-based devices. With the Maemo software, people will still be able to update the software even if someday Nokia pulls the device off the market.

Just about the only other similar device on the market is Sharp’s incredible Zaurus, now sold only in Japan, or via an importing firm such as Streamline CPUs, Japan Direct, or Dynamism. The only real limitation of the Zaurus compared to the Nokia 770 is that the Zaurus sports a smaller screen resolution of 640×480. The larger-resolution Nokia screen is about the smallest you can go and still comfortably view Web pages. –Eric Foster-Johnson

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