Good Bad Photography (2)

Pixlr-o-matic

image
This was a perfectly safe-looking house before I let Pixlr-o-matic at it

Oh, I’m liking this one. Pixlr-o-matic, unlike the Instagram and Hipster I discussed earlier, is not about applying pre-set combinations of effects. Instead you can choose the combination, from three different categories called Overlay, Filter and Frame. Plenty come with it, and you can quickly download many more – even seeing them applied in preview before you download, which is pretty amazing.

This is a really well thought-out app in the way that it manages to combine speed with flexibility. Obviously it takes longer to use than one of the others, simply because you have so many more options, but it means you can apply your own tastes rather than be restricted to the aesthetic ideas of an app’s creator. And to speed things up you can remove effects from the interface, getting ones you don’t like out of the way or even reducing it to just a few favourites. The rest remain accessible, but are a few taps away. For me, that flexibility easily outweighs the extra complication. There’s room for both types of app on a phone of course, but I see myself using this one far more often.

A couple of other great features:

A button to apply a random combination of filters that you can keep hitting until you’re pleasantly surprised. It abandons all control, but adds fun.

Single-click cropping to square. It just cuts off the sides, unfortunately there’s no zooming or panning, but it’s quick and it’s great to have the choice.

Best of all though, Pixlr-o-matic allows you to save your pictures. Are you surprised that that’s a bonus? Too many of these apps are so “social” that there is no option to save an image to your phone! You can only upload it.

This is the one Facebook should’ve bought. Maybe they just couldn’t pronounce it. Far, far better than Instagram or anything else I’ve found so far. And it costs exactly one billion dollars less.

Get it here.

Good Bad Photography (1)

Hipster

Lomography – the use of a uniquely crappy camera to take charmingly distorted pictures – was perhaps the last cry of film photography as a fashionable medium. It was soon overtaken by apps that could achieve similar effects and more, such as Hipstamatic for the iPhone. Developers quickly realised that with its ability to run software, a smartphone could be much more than an ordinary digital camera. Now, a photo is hardly a photo without an extreme colour cast and dark corners.

Then social networking got involved. Some may think the combination limited; after all, uploading images is just a subset of what Facebook or Google+ can do, and Flickr has had similar facilities for ages now without ever setting the world on fire. But on the other hand Pinterest – sharing other people’s pictures yet – has become the biggest social network after Facebook and Twitter, so it’s perhaps in the light of this that Instagram, one of the most successful free social/photography apps, was snapped up by Facebook on almost the same day that it became available for Android. For one billion dollars.

Oops, you blinked.

Networking is not so important to me, but I would like a good Lomo-style app to take fashionably bad photographs. I am impressed by how affecting these effects can be. The one above uses Hipster, an established Instagram-like app for Android. It’s OK, it has some interesting effects. But not many, and the tools seem a little limited. Very comparable to Instagram really, but with one big difference: The results are… unsquare. It leaves the images in widescreen ratio, not the cute square format that’s so key to the retro feel, and so far I’ve found no way to change that.

I don’t think this will be the one for me then. Look out for more trials to come.

Correction:

In my rush to find nice effects I completely overlooked the actual intention of Hipster. Though it’s similar to Instagram in most respects, its intention is to create postcard-like images automatically bearing the location they were taken, which I assume they scrape off Google Maps. Hence the wide format. I hadn’t realised this at first because the picture I took above was a long way from any landmark. If I had been, its name would’ve appeared in the black area on the left up there.

There’s a different font to suit each effect, and I suppose it achieves its goal; they do look like postcards. Unfortunately to me they mostly look like tastelessly effects-laden postcards from the 80s. Which is either insufficiently retro, or excessively ironic.

Similarly too, but not as tasteful as, Hipstamatic

Good Bad Photography (1)

Hipster

Lomography – the use of a uniquely crappy camera to take charmingly distorted pictures – was perhaps the last cry of film photography as a fashionable medium. It was soon overtaken by apps that could achieve similar effects and more, such as Hipstamatic for the iPhone. Developers quickly realised that with its ability to run software, a smartphone could be much more than an ordinary digital camera. Now, a photo is hardly a photo without an extreme colour cast and dark corners.

Then social networking got involved. Some may think the combination limited; after all, uploading images is just a subset of what Facebook or Google+ can do, and Flickr has had similar facilities for ages now without ever setting the world on fire. But on the other hand Pinterest – sharing other people’s pictures yet – has become the biggest social network after Facebook and Twitter, so it’s perhaps in the light of this that Instagram, one of the most successful free social/photography apps, was snapped up by Facebook on almost the same day that it became available for Android. For one billion dollars.

Oops, you blinked.

Networking is not so important to me, but I would like a good Lomo-style app to take fashionably bad photographs. I am impressed by how affecting these effects can be. The one above uses Hipster, an established Instagram-like app for Android. It’s OK, it has some interesting effects. But not many, and the tools seem a little limited. Very comparable to Instagram really, but with one big difference: The results are… unsquare. It leaves the images in widescreen ratio, not the cute square format that’s so key to the retro feel, and so far I’ve found no way to change that.

I don’t think this will be the one for me then. Look out for more trials to come.

Correction:

In my rush to find nice effects I completely overlooked the actual intention of Hipster. Though it’s similar to Instagram in most respects, its intention is to create postcard-like images automatically bearing the location they were taken, which I assume they scrape off Google Maps. Hence the wide format. I hadn’t realised this at first because the picture I took above was a long way from any landmark. If I had been, its name would’ve appeared in the black area on the left up there.

There’s a different font to suit each effect, and I suppose it achieves its goal; they do look like postcards. Unfortunately to me they mostly look like tastelessly effects-laden postcards from the 80s. Which is either insufficiently retro, or excessively ironic.

Similarly too, but not as tasteful as, Hipstamatic

The Phone That Should Have Been King

But boy, could it multitask. Sixteen apps running simultaneously on the N900’s task management screen. And sixteen is just the most you can show without scrolling. Like a PC, there is no upper limit except available memory.

Two years ago Nokia’s future was going to be Maemo, a cutting-edge operating system based on Linux with a sleek interface to replace the veteran Symbian OS. The phone that would bring it was the N900. This had the same processor as the rival iPhone 3GS, plus a much better screen and camera, neat slide-out keyboard, a kickstand and great stereo speakers for watching video, and even features the iPhone lacks to this day like real multitasking and a memory card slot.

As Nokia had been and was still the leading maker of smartphones, you might imagine a pent-up market of loyal customers gagging for a device that would show that upstart Apple. Yet when it arrived they stayed away in droves. The N900, very arguably the most advanced and capable phone yet made, was a magnificent, absolute, utter market failure.

What the hell went wrong? More than one thing, clearly. A phone with that much going for it could surely have survived one weakness, maybe even two or three, and still gone on to be a big seller.

Four though is pushing it.

Nokia N900, dial mode.
Not its best angle

The other week I showed it to an iPhone-using friend. She was interested, but asked – quite innocently – “Why is it so thick?” It’s true, it’s as thick as a brick. Downright chubby. Though its other dimensions are almost identical to the iPhone 3GS, it’s half again as deep. Is that such a bad thing? Thickness is actually a practical advantage in a phone, there’s little chance of cracking this one in your pocket. But such arguments weigh little in the scales of fashion. People have to be slim, therefore our phones have to be slim too – that seems to be about all the logic there is to it.

An even more damaging shortfall though was the strange absence of multitouch. Perhaps Nokia had too little experience with the necessary screen technology, but launching the N900 without a modern interface was like naming a ship “Abandon”. A resistive screen with a stylus for tapping little icons was an interface from obsolescent Windows Mobile and historic Palm devices. Nobody wanted one now.

Nobody, except a few freaks such as myself. Resistive is far better suited to drawing than the capacitive type of screen used for multitouch. Capacitive requires a large contact area with the surface, making precise detail impossible. Plus it lacks any dimension of pressure sensitivity, while resistive screens can be highly responsive to changes in the pen press.

Combined with pressure-aware Linux drawing applications like MyPaint, this ‘outdated’ resistive interface allowed realistic pen-like or brush-like drawing strokes. This made the N900 the best phone ever created for art,¹ a powerful but sensitive digital sketchbook you could carry in a pocket. Many of the cartoons appearing on this blog were done with it – pencilled, inked, coloured, lettered and uploaded without ever seeing paper or PC. You can even edit images with GIMP, a program with capabilities comparable to the full desktop version of Adobe Photoshop.

But the very thing that most endeared it to me was a huge turn-off to the wider public.

English: Nokia N900 communicator/internet tabl...
Looks better this way

Then there was the lack of apps. As Apple were first to realise, shopping is part of the experience now. A phone is nothing without stuff you can buy for it. There are some very good apps available for Maemo – but almost none to buy. Its Open Source Software roots meant that people were keen to contribute useful stuff. With a little tweaking it could even run apps built for desktop Linux. But that actually worked against a market for the Maemo platform. Professional app developers were discouraged by having to compete with free.

And this cultural clash, Open Source on one hand and commerce on the other, created other unforeseen problems. If you’ve got an issue with a community-developed program, to whom do you complain?

You don’t. In the cooperative world of OSS you file a bug report, documenting the issue and the circumstances that produce it. Which is lovely, but customers who’ve paid money for a fancy phone hardly expect to have to help out as well.

English: The Nokia N900 showing system informa...
Terminal: Fatal

Nor do they expect tech support that tells them to open a terminal window and enter Linux commands. That isn’t actually as intimidating as it might sound, but “Buy this and soon you’ll be learning Linux” is not the sort of slogan that say Apple would use. Or indeed anyone who wanted to sell anything.

And yet… It was so damn promising. If they had moved quicker to smooth off the edges of Maemo, if something like the N9 had arrived a year earlier – while people were still actually waiting for it – it might have been a hit instead of a peculiar footnote². Instead, Nokia paid brutally for not getting their collective arse in gear.

But, it was a remarkable achievement and a fascinating experiment. Even when it’s no longer my primary phone I’ll keep the N900 around, especially for travel, as an incredibly miniaturised PC. They can be picked up new on Ebay for under $200 now, I recommend them highly.

 

___________________________________________________________________

  1. Though Samsung were later to make the impossible dream come true by putting an actual Wacom digitizer on a phone.
  2. A footnote to the footnote: There are rumours that Nokia have quietly continued their Linux-based development – just not for smartphones. Dubbed Meltemi, a descendent of Maemo is rumoured to be the future replacement for the S40 “dumbphone” system that has done so well for them for so long, and could be used to bring smartphone-like features to low-cost devices. That might prove competitive against the rising tide of (frequently awful) cut-price Androids. A sad end for the noble Maemo maybe, but it could save Nokia’s bacon – and of course make them less dependent on Microsoft. Who’s to say that a Linux smartphone will not rise again?

Living With The Samsung Galaxy Note

And now, a guest post. Matthew lives in the UK where they’ve had the Samsung Galaxy Note for a couple of months now, so he’s had time to discover what it’s really like to use. Bear in mind he has the international version as opposed to AT&T’s US-only one. This has a faster processor but no LTE or NFC.

Galaxy Note Guest Review By Matthew

The Note’s browser – click for actual pixels

I was looking for a device small enough to carry anywhere yet large enough to function as a tablet. My previous phone was a Dell Streak, an earlier 5″ phone/tablet hybrid. This was much-maligned – because of its size in part, though Dell did it no favours by failing to properly market it and releasing it with Android 1.6 (Donut). Once upgraded, the Streak was a capable device. The hardware was extremely solid, and the large screen very useful for web browsing and email. I hoped then that it would be a success and spark off a wave of similar-sized phones. With luck, the Galaxy Note will succeed where the Dell Streak failed.

Form Factor

The main thing giving potential buyers pause is of course the size. While the Note is undeniably large – 46.9 x 83 x 9.7 mm – it isn’t that big a step up from the many 4.3″ phones that are available, although when I compared it to a work colleague’s iPhone the difference was more apparent. A preconception reviewers seem to have is that it must be too large and heavy for making regular phone calls. While this was a possible issue with the Dell Streak, the Galaxy Note is a lot lighter and thinner – at 176 grams it’s only about 25% heavier than the iPhone. People with small hands may have more difficulty than I do, but unless (like my annoying housemate) you’re going to be making two-hour-long calls I can’t see the size being a problem for most people.

The Note comes with the same Gorilla glass as the Dell Streak – although it doesn’t feel quite as solid, possibly due to the reduced weight. Many may find it too large for everyday use, but for me it’s the ideal size – large enough for web browsing and occasional content creation, yet still small enough to be carried everywhere. One of the great things about Android is that the variety of devices out there means there is pretty much one for everyone, and many will feel the need for one this size.

For the non-phone functions it’s pretty usable in portrait mode with one hand, but in landscape using the Note is definitely a two-handed operation. The Keyboard is too large to be reaching across from one side to the other, and if you’re not careful it’s very easy to drop. You wouldn’t want to be trying to send text messages with it while walking down the street. Also, it’s very easy to pick up the device upside down without noticing, then wonder where the hardware keys have got too. (For you lefties though, it works perfectly well that way round.)

The second common objection is that users will look like wallies holding it next to their heads. I haven’t experienced that problem myself – most people at work have been impressed when they see what the Note can do. A couple have commented on the size but agree it’s worth the pay off, and those who have said the Note is too large all belong to the “All you need is something that will make calls” brigade.

As for carrying it around, it has to be said – you need big pockets. As I say, its not that big a step up from the larger Android smartphones, but it’s a lot less portable then an iPhone, let alone a regular-sized phone. If, as I would recommend, you attach one of the many hard cases available to protect the Galaxy Note, the bulk increases further. This hasn’t been an issue for me personally, I carry more stuff in my pockets than Doctor Who, but skinny jeans are definitely out.

The size, as well as the lack of dedicated camera button, means its not that great for taking spontaneous photos. This is a shame as it’s very good for viewing pictures on and has a fair amount of storage space.

For business users, the extra screen space and fast CPU really make a difference. The battery holds up very well for an Android phone and it’s pretty solid. For everyone else, it depends on how you use your phone. It’s an excellent multimedia device, and is great for showing off photos, viewing webpages, or as a quite capable e-book reader. Its size does make it that little bit less practical, but for me I feel it’s more than worth it.

For comparison, here’s a picture of the Galaxy note next to my old HTC Touch Pro II, HTC Kaiser, and my ancient trusty Nokia work phone. (Apologies for the quality.)

The Galaxy Note next to some of my earlier devices

Innards

The Note comes with a 1.4GHz dual-core chip, 1024MB of RAM and 16GB of internal storage. There is also a microSD card slot that can expand the storage space, though without serious tinkering the Note currently only reads cards in the FAT32 format which has a file size limit of 4GB. So while it’s capable of playing 720p video with ease you may have to do some file recoding to get full-length movies to fit.

Physical Controls

There’s a 3.5mm headphone jack at the top, which will take regular headphones but has the usual third connector for use with the supplied earphones / hands-free microphone. This also functions as the aerial for the inbuilt FM Radio, although I’ve found it will receive a lot of stations with just regular headphones or speakers connected.

The power button is over on the top right, and the volume controls on the left. Both are easy to reach, however I did find myself accidentally pressing the power button on occasion. Also, there isn’t a dedicated camera button – rather an unusual omission. Down at the bottom is the microUSB connector¹. There’s no video/media socket, but the Galaxy Note is capable of HDMI output using what’s known as an MHL adapter (sadly not included, but available fairly cheaply).

At the bottom of the screen bezel are the usual setting and back buttons, and a physical home button. (The US version has all capacitive buttons.) Unfortunately these cannot be used with the S-Pen – which I will get to shortly – which makes using the stylus a slightly less seamless experience.

  1. We said earlier that the connector was proprietary. Apologies for this error.

Screen

The Galaxy Note has a vast 800 x 1280 pixel screen resolution, which at 5.3 inches gives it 284 dpi. The size makes reading on the display a much more pleasurable experience than on smaller devices. Full-size web pages can be read easily, and emails are much more accessible. One minor irk is that the colours on the AMOLED screen can have a strange cast to them. This can be partially rectified by setting the Screen mode to “Movie” (the US version seems to lack this option, at least at the moment). Nevertheless, the screen looks terrific.

Speakers / Microphone

I actually don’t make that many phone calls, but when I do I’ve found the Note perfectly capable. If the size isn’t an issue for you, the Note is definitely capable of being used as a primary phone.

The Pen

The second-most hyped feature of the Galaxy Note. While it was one of the main things that attracted me I must admit I use it very rarely, at least for everyday tasks. Android has evolved to the point where a stylus is redundant. That said, it does have a couple of very nifty features that I’ve been enjoying. Firstly, by touching the screen and clicking the button on the stylus, you can take a screenshot from any program – which has been pretty useful in writing this review. Furthermore, screenshots can be edited before being uploaded to Dropbox, or sent out via email or MMS:

On a more personal note I’m (very slowly) in the process of learning Japanese, and have been using the stylus heavily to practice my writing.

Battery Life

Battery life will of course vary depending on usage; the Note does have a generous 2500 mAh battery. With moderate browsing and emailing, the Note should easily last out the day.

Software

Like many Android users I’ve installed my own preferred apps on the Note, though I haven’t felt the need to install a third-party ROM. The Note currently comes with Android 2.3. Android 4.0 is due to land any time now, but it certainly doesn’t feel out of date.

The notification bar is very functional. As well as notifications from apps, I can see the battery status, current sound profile, and connectivity status. Opening up the status bar I can see my notifications in more detail, but also activate / deactivate the Wireless, Bluetooth, GPS, Silent Mode and Screen Rotation.

Expanded Notification Bar

Home Screen

Can’t speak too much about the home screen I’m afraid, as I replaced mine with ADWLauncher almost immediately (I’m pretty big on customizing my phones). Fairly major omission for a review I know, as Touchwiz is a significant feature on Samsung phones and is regarded as one of the best customized overlays. There’s the usual clock/weather widget, a calendar widget, Yahoo finances, and the Google Search bar and App shortcuts down at the bottom. As is usual with Android, the home screen can be rearranged to your heart’s content.

Keyboard

The Samsung keyboard works pretty nicely with the stylus. Touch the stylus button on the keyboard and a box opens allowing you to scribble words and have them translated instantly to text. It seems pretty accurate, though I’m not sure how much quicker it is than simply typing the words out.

Syncing

The Note requires you to sync with a Google Account, but also allows using an Active Exchange server. I haven’t tested this with a full Exchange account, however I have synced my Windows Live account which now supports the Exchange protocol. For anyone coming over from Windows Mobile, this means your contacts and appointments can remain on your Windows Live account and still be synced to the Note.

Email

The Note’s inbuilt email program is functional if a little basic. It supports standard IMAP / POP protocols, as well as Exchange Mail as already mentioned. Oddly, Gmail isn’t shown in this program by default and instead uses a separate program. As I rarely use my Gmail account this wasn’t an issue for me, but I can imagine it would be for anyone who wants to see their Gmail and other email accounts in one program. The Galaxy Note’s screen size allows the screen to be split in Landscape mode, with your inbox down the left and a preview window on the right.

Browser

Not much to say about the browser other than that it works – very well. Unlike on my Dell Streak, I’ve been using this to browse heavily and haven’t felt the need to install a third-party app. The browser will read web pages in full desktop or mobile mode, though I haven’t found a way of getting pages to display full desktop mode by default.

Calendar

The Note comes with Samsung’s own excellent S-Planner Calendar software. It’s a vast improvement over the standard calendar that comes with Android 2.3 and supports Year, Month, Day, 3 Day and Agenda views. While it will display multiple synced calendars, I haven’t yet found a way to successfully get it to sync with Google Tasks, which I do use heavily. Not too big a problem for me as I use a third-party widget to display my appointments and tasks, but it does lessen the usability of the S-Planner app.

Contacts / Phone

The Contacts / Phone screens have now been merged.

The Keypad screen allows you to search for contacts using the numeric keypad, a feature that was missing on the Dell Streak.

The Logs screen now displays text messages by default as well as your call log, which if you send as many texts as I do tends to clutter the screen up. It can be filtered to only show calls however.

The Contacts screen shows contacts from your Google Account, as well as any other account synced with the device – including Twitter and Facebook. Again this can clutter up the screen, but there is a search bar at the top. As usual, a contact that has entries in different accounts can have those accounts linked, allowing the device to pull a contact picture from Facebook or Twitter, or display their latest Twitter update or Facebook status. As I don’t use Facebook anymore I wasn’t able to test this feature fully; however it still doesn’t look as complete as HTCs excellent Sense interface on my old Windows Mobile Phone. Finally, there is a Favourites tab, showing you starred Android contacts, and the Groups screen, which splits your contacts down into whatever categories you have applied to them.

Google Maps

Google Maps has come on a long way since it was first introduced to Android devices, and is now an excellent navigation app. The Note’s screen size is larger than most commercial satnavs, and Google Maps looks glorious on it. It still however has the same flaws. Firstly, it requires an internet connection to download maps on the fly (although maps can be cached into memory), and the inbuilt speech engine (Pico TTS) doesn’t pronounce certain words that clearly. The Note does come with its own text-to-speech engine, but it didn’t work properly with Google Maps when I tried it.

All that said, Google Maps can certainly hold its own against commercial satnav devices, which is pretty impressive considering it is a free app.

Googles Map Screen

Googles Navigation Screen

Directions Screen

S-Memo

S-Memo is another app that makes excellent use of the stylus. Notes can quickly be typed or written out by pen and then saved, exported as an image, or shared out to the usual places. Handwritten notes can also be converted to text, and notes can be tagged or stacked. I’ve been using it at work in place of handwritten notes (which I invariably lose), it is a great little feature.

The S-Memo Ink-to-Text Feature

Polaris Office

The Note comes with Polaris Office rather than the usual Quick Note. While I don’t think the Note can completely replace a laptop for document editing, its larger screen serves it well. One feature I miss on Polaris Office is the ability to directly sync with Dropbox, which I used to find very useful for editing documents on multiple devices. I’ve yet to find one of my spreadsheets that won’t work on the Galaxy Note.

Sample Excel Sheet

Draft of this review

Multimedia

The Note is capable of 1080p and 720p playback. Strangely, I’ve found the native video player will play larger video files where the likes of Rockplayer won’t. I can only assume its because the inbuilt software can make full use of the Note’s hardware. The Music player is functional if slightly basic. It doesn’t have the same syncing ability as iTunes, but Android’s always been more about drag and drop. The inbuilt Gallery is great for flicking through images, which can be selected for editing, sharing, uploading or deletion. Unfortunately there’s no way to choose which directories show in the gallery, so if you use an app that has images spread out over multiple directories – Google Reader, for example – the Gallery can become so clogged as to be unusable.

Image Editor

While it’s certainly no Photoshop, it’s pretty impressive for a free app on a device this size. There’s the usual cropping abilities, resizing, inking and image adjusting. I’ve included a couple of pictures to demonstrate. Disclaimer – the cat isn’t mine.

 Summary

In summary, with the possible exception of my HTC Touch Pro II (I still miss having a physical keyboard), this has to be the best phone I’ve ever owned. It’s my MP3 device, phone, primary means of reading emails, satnav, note-taker and e-book reader. It’s portable enough that it can be taken anywhere (if your pockets are large enough), and is that reliable I haven’t had to do a hard reset yet. If you’re after a phone with a little more screen real estate and power than your average smart phone, the Note is just the thing.

The Obligatory iPad 3 Post

Apple have launched another iPad. Hooray.

Oh all right, I suppose it does merit a little more analysis than that. Rather like the iPhone 4S it’s another no-surprises upgrade. Solid – and in the case of the screen, substantial – improvements, but no hoverboots. Or maybe in Steve’s day we would have been convinced that the synergy of 4G connection speeds, high resolution screen and image-stabilizing camera creates an entirely new product with previously-unimagined purposes. Now it seems more for the stockholders than some mysterious cause.

What didn’t we get? A smaller iPad. An iPad with a pen input tool. An iPad with an iPhone in it. An iPad with an iPhone in it and a pen input tool that is also a Bluetooth phone receiver. Stuff like that. (I have to admit, in maybe a decade of designing tablets and phones in my head, nothing as out there as a pen you can make phone calls on ever occurred to me.) OK, gimmicky perhaps, but fun. Apple boringly stick to making a really good product that sells by the freighter-load.

Only one annoying element really. They’re not calling it the iPad 3 or the iPad 4G. They insist it will just be called “the iPad”, as if we’re expected to forget the existence of any previous, lesser iPads. A little Orwellian for my liking.

What Phone Was Right For Me?

Tricky lighting led to overexposure and noise in the dark areas – soon corrected by The GIMP

All the time I’ve been writing articles under the heading “What Phone Is Right For You?“, I have never confessed to what I actually use myself. Do I favour the Apple or the Blackberry, Windows or Androids?

None of the above. There was a reason I didn’t bring my own choice into it – the phone that’s right for me probably isn’t right for you. Or most anyone, it seems. Don’t get me wrong, it is an extraordinary piece of kit. But it sold in the hundreds of thousands at best, rather than the millions a hit mobile device needs.

Which is a shame, because it could have been the future.

That device is the Nokia N900 – less a phone really than a tiny PC with phone capabilities. Of course that can be said loosely of any smartphone, but it’s true of the N900 in spades. On this one you can have an actual desktop, and edit office-standard documents in powerful applications. Not bad for something you can carry around in your pocket.

Nokia achieved this with the help of the Open Source Software community – people who create free programs because they believe information technology should be free. Or just for the hell of it. OSS has brought us many great things, famously the Firefox browser of course, but also the free alternative to Windows and Mac OS called Linux.

The N900’s “Maemo” operating system is, like Ubuntu, based on the respected Debian¹ variant of Linux, so installing full-scale desktop applications is relatively straightforward. One great example: The GIMP², an Open Source alternative to Photoshop with all the image-editing power you could want. Thanks to this I was able to take, correct and upload the image above entirely on the phone.

And the usefulness only begins there. By hooking up a mouse and keyboard and using the TV-out as a monitor, I can have a desktop PC in any hotel room. Or indeed I can use the phone itself as a Bluetooth mouse and keyboard to control a PC from bed – which came in darn useful when I was ill – or control TVs and so on with its infra-red output. It’s versatility is matchless. Furthermore it excels as a media player, with powerful stereo speakers and a screen that wasn’t surpassed until the iPhone 4 came out.

English: Nokia N900 communicator/internet tabl...
The N900 with its keyboard open

Its greatest strength though has to be its browser. Nokia had been making specialised “Internet tablets”, portable Web browsing devices, as a semi-experimental sideline since 2005. The N900 just took that and added phone call abilities. Its browser therefore is proper Firefox, just with a finger-friendly interface, and brooks no ‘mobile view’ nonsense. It displays Web pages exactly as they’d appear on a desktop. With Flash, of course.

And though the phone aspect is a late addition, its integration is exemplary. Skype is just there – you can make and receive VoIP calls just as easily as ordinary ones. Similarly, IM services like Facebook and Google Chat integrate seamlessly with the phone’s text messaging. Contacts on different social networks can be merged into a single address book entry too. That’s just the way it should be.

So, what the hell went wrong? If this was such a paragon of smartphone virtue, why did no one buy it? Hopefully I’ll have the strength to face that sorry tale tomorrow.

  1. Poignant little story – Debian was named for its creator, Ian, and his girlfriend Deb – before they broke up. He’s going to have a hard time forgetting her now.
  2. The GIMP stands for The GNU2 Image Manipulation Package.
  3. GNU stands for GNU Is Not UNIX3. Recursive acronyms are kind of an OSS in-joke.
  4. Surprisingly, UNIX doesn’t stand for anything.