The Nokia 9000i Communicator

Welcome to the inaugural edition of #VintageTech! This blog seeks to cover important pieces of technology over the years that have helped shape the face of modern convenience.  Nothing is off limits and this blog will cover a wide array of electronics – some popular, most not. Every piece of technology reviewed here resides in our personal collection.

We start our first blog looking at the very first smartphone; the Nokia 9000i Communicator.

The Nokia 9000i
Released in Europe in 1996 (1998 in the USA), the Nokia 9000i was the first commercially successful attempt at marrying a cell phone with a personal digital assistant (PDA) while making a very useful device.  A clam-shell device that is part cell phone and part computer, the 9000i was a strong attempt to make a truly portable office.

The 9000i was an Intel-based device running a version of DOS with the GEOS UI on top of it.  Here’s a quick technical rundown of the specs:

CPU Intel 80386 (i386) SX running at 25mhz
RAM 8MB total (4MB OS, 2MB Program Execution, 2MB User storage
Display External:
LCD Monochrome w/green front-light illumination
3 rows of text supporting 10 characters per rowInternal:
640 x 200 Grayscale 4” display supporting 8 shades of gray plus ditheringElectroluminescent back-lit display introduced in 9000il successor
OS GEOS 3.0 running on top of ROM-DOS (MS-DOS compatible)
Cellular Connectivity Single-Band 2G 1900mhz (US T-Mobile 2G)CSD (Circuit Switched Data) Cellular Modem allowing for up to 14.4 dial-up internet and fax connectivity
PC Connectivity 9-PIN Serial connection enabled through proprietary adapter
Supported Sync Software IntelliSync w/support for Exchange, Lotus Notes, and others.

Some technical notes:
The 9000i included a traditional cellular modem which could provide internet access via dial-up Internet Service Providers (ISPs). In addition, it supports both sending and receiving of fax transmissions.


Design DNA

The 9000i was produced in the same generation as the Nokia 2180 cell phone and shares design DNA with that device.  Many of the ‘phone-centric’ features are similar to that product.


Around the Packaging
The Nokia 9000i came packaged in an attractive box showing off the many unique features of the device.

The box for the 9000i Communicator
Front of the box
Back of the box
Back of the box
Side flap
Side flap

Packaged in the box were the device, a battery, standard Nokia wall charger, user manual, getting started/accessory guide, software packet (both a driver on floppy disk and a CD-ROM), 9-PIN serial data transfer cable, and a charging/transfer adapter that connects to the phone.

Inside the box
Inside the box
Software
Software
User Manuals
User Manuals

 

Looking at the Device
The 9000i would never be mistaken for a small phone.  Even for its generation, it was a behemoth and typically described as a brick. This is due in part to its size 173 x 64 x 38 mm (6.81 x 2.52 x 1.50 in) as well as its massive 397 g (14.00 oz) weight. Make no mistake about it, this device is HUGE and struggled to be pocket-able. That being said, it did a nice job of being a portable office with functionality that far surpassed PDAs at the time. Truly a ‘Communicator’ which is worthy of the branding.

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The real star of the show appears when you flip the clam-shell lid open, you are presented with the full QWERTY keyboard and large inner display. A row of ‘function’ keys adorn the top of the keyboard with the addition of directional arrows. The top of the display features 4 ‘soft’ keys on the right which have functions that change depending on the application in which you are using. On the left are two arrow keys used to scroll page content.

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Looking at the Software
The 9000i runs a customized version of the GEOS 3.0 (Berkeley Softworks); a graphical operating system that runs on top of DOS. The external display of the device is a standard Nokia phone display (of the time) which displays 3 rows of 10-character text with soft-key buttons. We will take a quick look at each of the main functions of the 9000i.

Telephone
Upon booting up the phone, you are taken to the “Telephone” application.  This utility allows you to browse contacts, place calls, access voice mail, view call history, and call-related settings.

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To place a call, highlight the name you wish to call and click the “Call” soft key.  The call will be initiated.  If the person has more than one number associated with their contact card, you will be presented a list of numbers to choose from.

Fax
Pressing the ‘Fax’ button takes you to the fax application.

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This application allows you to create a fax, view received faxes, manage received faxes, and adjust fax-related settings.

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SMS
One of the first devices in the USA to utilize the “Short Messaging Service” (SMS) standard for sending and receiving text messages, click the ‘SMS’ button will take you to the SMS application.

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This utility allows you to create and send text messages as well as review received messages. You can also send/receive business cards in the .vcf format as well as view delivery reports (if your carrier supports them).

Internet
One of the more interesting applications is the ‘Internet’ utility.  This application provides access to email (POP and IMAP),  a HTML 2.0 compliant web browser, Telnet, and a 3270 terminal emulator. Using the dial-up capability of the Circuit Switched Data modem, you can check your email, browse the web, and connect to other machines on the go with a glorious 14.4kpbs (more typically 9600bps) data connection.

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The web browser is capable for its time (think 1994-1995 browsers) although by the time the communicator saw its US release in 1998, we were already up to HTML 3.2 compliant browsers. The email browser is fine for what it does and will handle rich-text emails in addition to text only.

Contacts
The contacts application looks similar to the telephone app and provides the ability to create and edit contacts. I am not going to include a screenshot here as it doesn’t differ much from the ‘Telephone’ utility.

Notes
The ‘Notes’ app allows you to create, edit, and save notes.  Akin to “OneNote”, this app provided the user with a mechanism to take notes.

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Calendar
Another nice app is the ‘Calendar’ utility. This is a standard full-featured calendar providing day, month, week views with the ability to set up appointments and reminders. Task lists are also supported.  Not much to say here except for the fact that this split-screen layout was adopted through the entire Communicator line as well as several other platforms.

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System
The ‘System’ app is a control panel of sorts and provides access to all available settings on the device.

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Options for security, contact management, modem settings, software installation, as well as others are provided.

Extras
The ‘Extras’ utility is where all third-party software would be installed to.  Yes – this device supported the installation of software. Most software that was designed to run on GEOS can be run on the 9000i with minimal changes to the interface. This made it possible to port utilities, games, and other apps to the phone. In addition, built-in applications which do not have a clear grouping were placed here (clock, calendar, etc…).

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Some examples include a ringtone composer where you can create custom ringtones (non-polyphonic) for use on the device. Ringtones were saved in a standard format which can then be transferred to other phones/devices and will even work on current phones.

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Popular games (for the time) including ‘Tetris’, ‘Snake’, and even a first-person maze game akin to Wolfenstein 3D appeared on the device:

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Screenshot of first-person maze game.
Screenshot of first-person maze game

 

Legacy
The Nokia 9000i Communicator was the first in a long line of products from Nokia which included the following successors:

9110i Communicator (1998 – Europe only): GEOS
9210/9290 Communicator (2001-2002): Symbian S80
9500/9300 Communicator (2004-2005): Symbian S80
E90 Communicator (2007): Symbian S60
E7 (2011): Symbian^3, Anna, Belle

 

Conclusion
As the first smartphone on the market, the Nokia 9000i Communicator was ahead of its time in a lot of ways. In others, it was it was immediately dismissed due to its massive size and high price tag.

Here is a pic of the 9000i next to a Panasonic KPW-120 (one of the smaller Android phones) as well as the Nokia Lumia 1520 (currently the largest Windows Phone).  You can see just how large the 9000i is.

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Size is relative of course and as the communicator line went on, the devices got sleeker and smaller.  Here is a pic of the 9000i next to the E90 (the last of the true communicators):

9000i-e90

All things being said, the 9000i was a wonderfully useful piece of hardware at a time where most people had to carry multiple devices to match its functionality.

And yes – it still works to this day.

-Daniel Camputaro

 

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