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Nokia's GPS-Enabled Pocket Computer

Loaded with Web 2.0 applications, the N810 could help usher in location-aware computing.

At the Web 2.0 Summit in San Francisco on Wednesday, Nokia unveiled its latest product, an ultraportable, Wi-Fi-enabled tablet computer called the N810. The new gadget, which will be available in the United States in November for $479, is slightly taller, wider, and thicker than an Apple iPhone, but it features a slide-out keyboard as well as a touch screen, a Web camera, and a Global Positioning System (GPS) receiver. Nokia is also offering a set of tools that let programmers add their own bells and whistles to the device, which could lead to such features as geotagged blog posts, friend-finding capabilities, and location-based mobile gaming.

Computer in your pocket: Nokia’s new N810 is a Wi-Fi-enabled tablet computer, slightly larger than an iPhone, that includes a GPS receiver and mapping tools (depicted above). The company is granting mobile-phone software developers access to the phone, which could result in programs that integrate Web 2.0 applications and GPS, such as location-based games and geotagged blog entries.

While the Web 2.0 Summit, a gathering of Internet-software experts, may seem like an odd place to unveil a new piece of hardware, Nokia’s Anssi Vanjoki, executive vice president and general manager of multimedia, played up the tablet’s Internet importance. “Look what happened to the Internet,” Vanjoki said in a presentation. “First came Internet search and browsing. Now, Web 2.0 is a social place with media sharing. We believe that Nokia will have a very important role in making the next Web.”

The software preinstalled in the N810, Vanjoki said, includes video and music players, as well as Web applications such as a browser, the Internet-telephony software Skype, Gizmo video chat, instant messaging, and GPS-integrated mapping tools. The device’s processor operates at 400 megahertz; it has 128 megabits of random-access memory, two gigabytes of internal storage, and an expansion slot that can accommodate up to eight gigabytes more.

At first blush, it’s tempting to compare the N810 to Apple’s iPhone. But the N810 is not a phone: it can tap into the cellular network only indirectly, through a wireless connection to a Bluetooth-enabled cell phone. Rather, the device falls into the product category of ultraportable computers, gadgets that aren’t as bulky as laptops but have similar capabilities. For years, ultraportable computers have languished in the middle ground between tiny cell phones and larger laptops. But some experts say that their shrinking size has them poised to take off. (See “Smaller Is Better, Say Makers of Ultraportable PCs.”) And size is certainly one of the N810’s advantages: while slightly larger than many smart phones, it can still fit comfortably in a pocket.

Software developers will be able to create Web services for the device using Nokia’s Ovi platform, which has been publicly available for some time. This means that Nokia’s community of 3.5 million mobile-phone programmers has access to the new gadget.

Vanjoki believes that this is big news for location-based services and “context-aware computing,” since the N810 has a fully functional GPS receiver. “We have integrated GPS in this device and have a nice API [application programming interface–the tools for writing software for the device] that will allow location to become a major context,” he said. “Combining location information with the device is a fantastic opportunity to rethink the next stage of the Web.”

However, since Wi-Fi coverage is sparse in much of the country, the only way to ensure the N810’s constant connection to a network is by keeping it in close proximity to a Bluetooth-enabled cell phone. As a consequence, the device is likely to prove an incremental step toward true location-based services.

“GPS brings a lot to mobile devices…and it enables innovative location-based Web applications,” says Phil McKinney, vice president and chief technology officer for the personal systems group at Hewlett Packard. HP is currently trying to hone location-based games–games in which people use GPS-enabled mobile devices to complete different tasks–called mscapes. (See “Your Phone as a Virtual Tour Guide.”)

The target audience for the N810 is young adults, so the device’s featured applications focus more on fostering social connections and on sharing and playing media files than other smart tablets’ do. Vanjoki, however, believes that the N810’s Web applications are the types of features that the market wants in an ultraportable computer.

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