Tuesday 26 May 2020

Nokia 770 vs HTC Universal (2005)

HTC Universal in vanilla form and an O2 XDA Exec
Fifteen years ago the golden age of mobile phones was in full swing – each generation added new features, but most phones concentrated on the business of making phone calls, playing games and taking a few grainy photos. But on the higher end of the market were devices that would lay a path followed by the smartphones of today. Two of these were the Nokia 770 and the HTC Universal.

In 2005 HTC exclusively made devices sold with the names of other companies on them – so the HTC Universal went under many names including the O2 XDA Exec, T-Mobile MDA IV, Qtek 9000 and i-mate JASJAR. Despite the marketing confusion, HTC’s reputation was growing… but it would still be another year before HTC would sell phones under its own name.

The Universal itself was ground-breaking. Here was a smartphone with absolutely everything – a smartphone with a large 3.6” VGA-resolution touchscreen display on a swivelling hinge, a physical QWERTY keyboard, front and rear cameras, expandable memory, Bluetooth, infra-red connectivity, WiFi and 3G. The only thing missing from the feature list was GPS, which was a rare option back then (although the rival Motorola A1000 did feature GPS).

It was a big device for the time, measuring 127 x 81 x 25mm and weighing 285 grams. But in modern terms, that’s about the same footprint as the iPhone 11 but about 50% heaver and three times thicker. The swivelling hinge meant that you could use the Universal like a mini-laptop or a PDA.

There were flaws – it could have used more RAM, the VGA resolution screen was effectively a just a scaled-up QVGA screen most of the time and the new version of Windows it came with was still clunky and harder to use than a modern OS. The wallet-lightening price of nearly €1000 for SIM-free versions compared unfavourably with laptops of the same era, and while the Universal had awesome mobile working capabilities it just wasn’t as powerful as a real computer. And from a practical point of view, the sheer size and weight made it impractical to use as a mobile phone from the point of view of a customer in 2005.

Nokia 770 Internet Tablet
Nokia on the other hand were trying something different. The Nokia 770 Internet Tablet wasn’t a phone at all but was instead a compact Linux-based computer with built-in WiFi and Bluetooth for connectivity. You could still use the 770 pretty much anywhere, but you’d need to spend a little time pairing it with your regularly mobile phone and setting it up as a modem.

There was no camera or keyboard either, but there was a huge (for its day) 4.1” 800 x 480 pixel touchscreen display, expandable memory and pretty decent multimedia support. The operating system was Maemo, a Linux-based platform that was quite different from Nokia’s regular Symbian OS. It was wider but thinner than the Universal and at 230 grams a good deal lighter.

The whole Internet Table project was a bit left-field for Nokia, but it attracted a small but dedicated following. Many were attracted by the idea of using Linux on a small handheld computer which was a fresh idea, indeed in retrospect it seems trailblazing because both iOS and Android are closely related to Linux.

The 770 suffered from a lack of software at first, although it didn’t take long for Linux application to be ported across. The processor was a bit slow and there was a lack of RAM which hampered things, and some people just couldn’t get used to the idea of carrying two devices. It was successful enough though to spawn several sequels, which is a different story.

Even though the 770 was priced at just €370 (about a third of the price of the Universal) there was some criticism that it was expensive. In retrospect it looks positively cheap though, and although modern tablets are much bigger there are many echoes of modern smart devices here.

Neither the 770 nor the Universal were a huge success, perhaps partly because the technology of 2005 wasn’t quite good enough to deliver the results people wanted, and perhaps partly because consumers didn’t understand that they wanted all these features from a mobile device until handsets such as the original iPhone came along.

Today both devices are fairly collectable, with the HTC Universal coming in between £100 to £350 or so depending on condition and about £80 to £250 for the Nokia 770. Oh, and the winner between the two? The Nokia 770's software platform is pretty close to what we use today, with the "everything but the kitchen sink" hardware specs of the HTC Universal. Let's call this one a tie.

Image credits: HTC, O2, Nokia

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