A tale of two tablets: Is Nokia's N1 a return to form or a rerun of past failures?

Nokia is having a second tilt at tablets with the release of the N1. Will it fare better than its last attempt?

The Nokia N1. Image: Nokia

When Nokia sold its handset business to Microsoft last year, it agreed not to make any phones for the next three years. It didn't say anything about tablets, though, and the first slate bearing the Nokia brand name has just been released.

Nokia announced the N1 tablet at the Finnish startup show Slush late last year. The N1 runs on Android 5.0 Lollipop, has a 7.9-inch display, 2GB of RAM, 32GB of onboard storage, and a price tag of $249.

While Nokia has given some hints that we might one day see the N1 being released in Europe, so far it's only been made available in China. The N1 was launched in the country last week, where according to the official N1 Weibo feed it sold 20,000 units in the first minutes after release and sold out, with over 500,000 more would-be buyers lining up to get their hands on the device.

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Nokia has after all already tried its hand at tablet-making in its previous life. Its first tablet, the Lumia 2520, was a glossy 10.1-inch slate released in late 2013. While it had the good looks that characterised Nokia devices, it was hobbled by the fact it had Windows RT onboard and carried a price tag of $399, putting it at the higher-end of the tablet market and in competition with the iPad.

Despite some solid if understated reviews, it doesn't appear as if the 2520 sold well. While Nokia hasn't given sales figures for the 2520, a 2014 recall of the chargers that were sold with the device shed some light on its popularity.

When the recall was launched last April, Nokia said that 30,000 chargers were being recalled across seven countries: Austria, Denmark, Finland, Germany, Russia, Switzerland, and the United Kingdom. The 2520 was on sale in other countries - including the US and Australia - so the 30,000 figure doesn't represent the entirety of sales for the 2520 in the first six or so months after launch, but it does give an idea of how it performed.

To look at it another way, in one day in one country the N1 sold two-thirds the amount the 2520 did in six months in seven countries.

Clearly, Nokia has learnt lessons from the 2520. The N1 is based on Android, the most popular tablet OS which accounted for around half of the market last year, rather than RT, whose market share is so small as to be undetectable. The N1 is also smaller than the 2520 - at 7.9 inches, it's likely to have more mass appeal than the 10.1-inch Lumia, given the seven-inch form factor is the most popular tablet size out there to date. And there's the price tag - at $249 for some pleasing specs (2.4GHz quad-core processor, Gorilla Glass 3, 5200mAh battery, eight-megapixel rear camera, and so on), the N1 was always going to be an easier sell than the 2520.

Has the N1 succeeded where the 2520 failed then? Arguably, the point of the 2520 wasn't to be a unit-shifter; the price tag and choice of OS would have seen to that. It was more likely conceived as a way of showing support for Windows on tablets, and RT in particular, at a time when the OS was struggling to gain traction.

The idea behind the 2520 would seem more to be about showing that a Windows tablet could be desirable rather than putting one on every desk, and adding another manufacturer to the Windows roster when it was looking a little thin. The N1, clearly a tablet for the casual buyer, was always destined to outsell Nokia's first tablet.

But by how much? 20,000 in two days is a good number, but the 500,000 would-be buyers lining up to buy an N1 is far more impressive. However, it's a number that should be taken with a pinch of salt.

Nokia couldn't confirm the figures when asked by ZDNet, as the tablet is sold through resellers and channel partners, and the Weibo feed isn't run by Nokia itself. The boasts however do bring to mind the sales figures bandied around when the Nokia X went on sale in China. At the time, official Weibo accounts put pre-orders at over a million. However, it later transpired that a million people had registered interest on a Chinese shopping site without actually having signed up to buy it, and many may have done so as a result of a competition that offered those 'pre-ordering' the chance to win one of the devices.

Still, whether those 500,000 have actually signed up to buy the N1, or are just registering modest interest, there have been at least 20,000 purchases.

Given the scale of the Chinese tablet market, where several million tablets are now sold per quarter, 20,000 doesn't perhaps seem such a huge figure. "According to Foxconn feedback, the sales volume is almost 20,000 units in the first two days. 20,000 is not good sales preference for a new model launch, compared to more than two million units per month in the Chinese tablet market," said Fiona Wu, senior research manager at IDC.

But does that make it a disaster for Nokia? Nope, it's not that either. Nokia after all isn't manufacturing the N1 itself, selling them, and supporting them. That's all down to Foxconn, which is Nokia's partner in the venture.

Nokia has supplied the reference design for the N1 and licensed Foxconn to use its branding; Foxconn will handle the rest.

There's no real risk here for either company: if the 20,000 units really have sold out, that means Foxconn only made a small run of the devices to test the waters. Having found an appetite for the devices exists in the country, it will presumably make more, and if anyone knows how to do device volume at speed, it's Foxconn.

There's no risk here for Nokia either - it gets to keep its brand alive in the consumer hardware marketplace without all the factories, salespeople, and support staff that it needed in the past. Its brand is in safe hands too, as the reference design will make sure the device is up to Nokia's standards and Foxconn already makes hardware for some of the toughest names in the business (including Apple). As a bonus, Nokia is using the N1 as a vector for its software ambitions, with the inclusion of the Z Launcher on the tablet.

While some have been quick to pronounce the N1's Chinese launch as a triumphant return to glory days for Nokia, that's a gross exaggeration. At the same time, despite the small numbers involved, it is not a disaster either. It's simply two companies conducting a smart, sensible experiment in hardware. It's on such foundations that triumphant returns are built.

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