In our new Flashback series we'll be taking a look back at some of the devices and events that shaped the mobile phone industry and brought us where we are today.
The Nokia 5800 XpressMusic was a good phone for its time and with 8 million units sold in the first year of availability, it proved to be a commercial success by the Finnish giant, which was on top of the world. But if we remove our rose-colored glasses, we can see that this phone marked the beginning of the end of Nokia’s dominance.
When it came out in late 2008, the 5800 had just about everything you can want from a smartphone. It was a hybrid between the capable N-series and the media-driven XpressMusic, it came with a rich retail package and an attractive price tag.
This wasn’t Nokia’s first touch-operated device, but it was probably the first that most people saw as it was highly popular and only niche devices came before it. This was also the first time that the then dominating Symbian Series 60 used touch as the primary input and it showed (Symbian UIQ got there first, but it was on its death bed by 2008).
To their credit, the Finns released several major updates to the OS that significantly improved the performance of the phone and the usability of the interface. Still, they were trying to drag a 20th century OS into the 21st and it wasn’t going to go easy.
After Apple caught the mobile world off-guard in 2007 with the first phone and OS that were built from the ground up to use touchscreens exclusively, market-leader Nokia at first dismissed it as a fad and by the time it realized the error of its ways it was very late and it needed to respond quickly. And that’s how we got this phone.
Comparing the Nokia 5800 and the contemporary iPhone 3G, the Symbian phone has clear advantages. Its screen was sharper and with a media-friendly 16:9 aspect ratio, the camera was higher quality and it could shoot 480p video (which wouldn’t be available on iPhones until a year later with the 3GS). It had stereo speakers and expandable storage too.
But the iPhone had a responsive, finger-friendly capacitive touchscreen and a UI that was designed around it, including multi-touch gestures. The Nokia came with a resistive touchscreen and a stylus that slid into the phone (plus an external plectrum). Worse still, it lacked basics like kinetic scrolling in menus and predictive input for the on-screen QWERTY.
Until then, Symbian Series 60 was controlled with a D-pad and a keyboard of some sort. The 5th edition (later redubbed Symbian^1) made the interface react to touch input, but the result was quite clunky. It was like a DOS app with mouse support – it worked, but it wasn’t Windows.
Nokia had an alternative OS, Maemo, which powered the Nokia N900. That wasn’t a touch-first OS either, being based on Linux and X window system (which are traditionally rely on a mouse and keyboard). It did feel more modern than Symbian with multiple homescreens with widgets and card-based multitasking.
We won’t recount the stories of internal struggles, but the Symbian team clearly won. Maemo (actually its successor, MeeGo) would produce only one other major phone, the Nokia N9, which is one of our favorite Nokias ever (not to mention that its UI felt ahead of its time).
For a few more years, Nokia kept trying to make a version of Symbian for the touchscreen world (and truth be told, Symbian Belle felt pretty close to Android). But you know how this story ends – feeling they missed the boat on Android, Nokia leadership committed to Windows Phone, hoping Microsoft can conquer mobile as it did the desktop market. It didn’t and Nokia went down with it.
We’re not placing a lot of blame on Nokia 5800’s shoulders. After all it was just a capable, affordable mid-ranger and that made it quite popular – 8 million people can’t be wrong. And they got a lot of value from it too.
This sub-€300 phone came with an 8GB microSD card in the box, a good-quality headset, an AV cable and a nice carrying case, plus the plectrum attached to a lanyard. Also, Nokia added features from its flagship N97 via software updates (including overclocking the CPU) and released free voice-guided navigation, something that was initially reserved for the Nokia 5800 Navigation Edition.
As a mid-ranger, the Nokia 5800 was a hit as the low price tag made its flows easy to forgive.
Then a few months later, the Nokia N97 launched to try and really show that the Symbian-gone-touch can work in the flagship. Nokia EVP of Markets Anssi Vanjoki famously called the N97 “a tremendous disappointment in terms of the experience quality for the consumers”. Ouch.
Still, with the benefit of hindsight we can see that the 5800 raised the red flags even before the N97 came out – Symbian couldn’t compete in the touchscreen era of smartphones. About Symbian^1, Vanjoki said they “stretched for too long, something which should not have been stretched”.
Nokia had a few more successful phones after that, but if you look back, you’ll see that the camera division is the only thing that kept the company’s mobile business afloat and it could only do so much.
So, that’s the bittersweet story of the Nokia 5800 XpressMusic – a successful, well-liked phone that nevertheless marked the start of the company’s slide down.