Back to the smartphone experience of 2006

Tech Life

Around this week ten years ago, the iPhone went on sale. It revolutionised everything about the mobile phone landscape. Year after year, iteration after iteration — both in the iPhone hardware and iOS — we have been getting so accustomed to the ‘new order’ and to the revolution brought by the iPhone that, understandably, there are a lot of things we now take for granted.

Just two days ago, I had a sobering reminder of what was life with a smartphone before the iPhone. My wife and I noticed a discarded Nokia E61 near her workplace. The phone looked a bit battered. The battery, while present, appeared damaged in one corner. I decided to bring it home anyway, like with any discarded electronic device I deem interesting, the idea being, Let’s see if it works. If it ends up not working, I can always throw it away myself. My wife used to own a Nokia 6630 and I remembered we still had its accessories around (charger, USB data cable, earphones). Now, Nokia is one of the best when it comes to accessory compatibility in their older phones, and I was happy to see that everything could be easily connected to this E61.

After a short while connected to the charger, surprise surprise, the E61 came alive:

Nokia E61 - alive

(Photo taken with an iPhone 4 in terrible lighting conditions — apologies for the quality.)

What’s even more surprising is that, despite the physical damage, the battery works and still holds an impressive charge.

So, I got lucky. Then I started fiddling with the phone, while looking for more information about it. I remember chasing after this series of Nokia smartphones in the pre-iPhone era. They looked ‘professional’ and capable. Now its tech specs definitely make us chuckle. It was 2006 after all. Still, thanks to the iPhone happening, smartphones like this feel even older now. To be fair, the E61 is capable enough to connect to WPA wireless networks; it easily paired via Bluetooth with my Mac; it is especially good at handling email; and has decent calendar/organiser apps, like many other similar smartphones/PDAs of the era. Even the physical keyboard is tolerable (better, say, than the Palm Pre’s) and the joystick is better than certain mushy ‘pads’ I operated on other dumbphones and pre-iPhone smartphones. Oh, and the speaker is surprisingly loud and crisp: music obviously sounds richer through the earphones, but it is otherwise quite listenable. The speaker is positioned on the side of the phone, so the music doesn’t come out muffled when you leave the phone on any kind of surface.

Nokia E61

The real shock in going back to a phone that existed before the iPhone and iOS is with regard to the interface and the user interaction. Trivial tasks such as connecting to a wireless network involve convoluted trips to menus in different areas of the phone; it took me a while to figure things out because now I just turn Wi-Fi on, tell my iPhone which network to connect to, and I can easily see on the status bar if and when the iPhone is connected to a wireless network. On this Nokia, I had to revert to the previous concept of having connectivity ‘on demand’; I had to remember that logic to understand why it was necessary to first create a sort of profile to designate e.g. my wireless home network as access point to connect to when needed. You don’t just point at your network on the list of available networks and tell the phone to connect to it, like you do now.

As you can see in the picture above, the UI of these phones was more folder-based than app-based, and the folder structure a bit more rigid than how we’re accustomed to doing things now. It wasn’t worse per se, it made sense for how you used such phones, but it certainly was more of a pain to navigate.

Returning to a physical keyboard, despite being rather decent as this one, reminded me how I sorely don’t miss one and how grateful I am for the iPhone’s virtual keyboard. Sure, at this point I’d probably have to spend a week using only the Nokia E61 to properly get accustomed to its keyboard and gain typing speed, but again, I had forgotten how tedious and frustrating the ‘hunt for a symbol or diacritic’ game was. At least it’s a full keyboard and I didn’t have to go back to T9 input.

Then of course there’s the matter of the screen. It’s okay, and has enough contrast. The pixels are visible but not as conspicuously as the photo above may suggest. Still, it’s QVGA: 320×240 pixels, and browsing the Web is… well… not really pleasant. I managed to install the Opera Mini browser, which is more usable, but still: websites (those that are gracious enough to adjust to this kind of vintage device) are hard to navigate and difficult to read. Checking my Gmail account was tolerable, as is handling emails in general on this phone, but again, fonts were small and legibility low. You just miss a retina display badly.

As I’m sure you understand, I’m not writing a review of the Nokia E61. It wouldn’t be fair and wouldn’t make any sense, but checking out this smartphone from 2006 is useful for the perspective it gives. It’s fascinating to have this kind of throwback experience and be reminded of the sheer magnitude of the iPhone’s impact right thereafter and from that point onward. I had to spend a couple of days with a previous concept of smartphone to fully realise the amount of details, user interface and user interaction paradigms we take for granted today.

The Author

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