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.

 

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  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?

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.

Tiny Wireless Device

No Bigger Than Your Thumb

Well we finally got the iBook done. Possibly due to its habit of regularly becoming misconnected, the AirPort (WiFi) card had well and truly failed. You could tell this because if you plugged it back in and switched on, the computer wouldn’t boot or even beep. Its fan would just start spinning at maximum speed, and the card would become too hot to touch.

Generally, not a good sign.

Buying a new internal card from Apple would have been expensive, time-consuming, or both, so we went looking for a USB WiFi adapter instead. I was surprised – the shops were full of very reasonably-priced stuff from Netgear, Belkin and Cisco, absolutely none of which seemed to be compatible with Macs. You’d think it would be worth the small cost of developing drivers. Sure, all Macs come with WiFi built in now, but so does virtually every PC laptop.

We found a nice one eventually though, from a maker called Edimax. It was a bit more expensive than the others, but it’s cute as a button. The same size as the smallest Bluetooth adapter, yet it seemed to have no problem receiving a signal throughout the house.

Any catch? Well yeah… The drivers come on a CD. But to save on packaging – laudable as that is – it’s one of those mini CDs, maybe half the diameter of the proper thing. Not a size you see much since the demise of the CD single, which was the same day as they came out. These work perfectly in most CD drives of course, but Macs have slot-loaders. So basically you slide that little disc on in there, and… you start figuring how the hell you’re going to get it out again.

Except possibly by sheer luck once in a while, a mini CD is not going to play in a slot-loading drive. But no matter, you can download the drivers instead. Just connect to the Wi… Oh right.

Where there’s a will; I happened to have a 3G modem with me, though I suppose we could’ve dug up an Ethernet cable too. After that it was relatively simple. Except that the download link required you to enter an email address despite clearly saying it was optional – a double irritation this time. Otherwise though, it seems a lovely little product. And not only does it come with drivers for most versions of OS X and Windows, it even has them for Linux. One to remember.

What Phone Is Right For You? 8 – Nokia Not Dead

Yeah, I think some people will enjoy using a phone that looks like this

I started this guide to choosing a phone not long after Nokia announced their game-changing deal with Microsoft. It seems fitting to conclude the series with the first fruit of that alliance.

Was the wait worth it? Yes. Not, alas, because the new Nokia phones are perfect. It would be wonderful to be able to say your phone-choosing dilemmas were all over, but there is still a way to go. They should be the last major development for a while though, so we know now what the real choices are.

And they are very promising. A few months back Nokia brought out the N9, their first phone with the Linux-based MeeGo operating system. It was a thing of beauty, with a genuinely novel all-touch interface and a unique body moulded and milled from hard polycarbonate and curved glass, but it seems certain now that the operating system is a dead end. It was pleasant if not wholly unexpected therefore to find that their new Lumia 800 is in many respects just a Windows Phone 7 version of the N9. (See them compared point-by-point here).

Or rather, Windows Phone 7.5 – the Nokia is one of the first phones with the new version of the Microsoft OS. And its greater polish, in combination with the the hardware refinement Nokia bring to the party, make the Microsoft system seem for the first time a credibly sexy alternative to iOS and Android.

This phone isn’t going to blow the iPhone 4S or the Galaxy S II away though. Its gestation has taken a long time, and consequently it isn’t right on the cutting edge when it comes to specifications. But I think it will be the first Windows phone to have real mass-market appeal, certainly in Europe. It’s different and eye-catching. In the US Nokia will need to find the good relationships with carriers that have eluded it until now, but with Microsoft at its back that seems eminently possible. Rumour has it indeed that they’re holding back the Lumia 800 so that they can launch with a version capable of using LTE (that is, 4G) on AT&T or Verizon’s network. That would quickly correct the impression most Americans have of Nokia as a maker of only low-end phones.

So though the Lumia may not quite be a world-beater yet, it probably does enough to put both Nokia and Microsoft on track. It lags way behind both Android and iPhone in terms of apps, but going a long way to counter this there’s a huge amount of excellent stuff built right – Office 365, Nokia Drive, XBOX Live, Bing Vision. And the interface, particularly in its bright and curvy Nokia incarnation, is very arguably better than even the iPhone’s. It’s certainly prettier. Would I buy it? I don’t think so. It’s delicious looks sorely tempt me, but I’ll wait for what they’ll come out with next. If they can get back onto the front line of hardware specs we will have a real three-way battle here.

But you should forget Nokia if you want a smartphone right now? No; don’t forget Symbian. Nokia’s previous operating system may have been around for a long time but – unlike MeeGo – it’s not about to go away. They’re still improving on it (the latest version is called Symbian Anna) and there are a great number of apps available. Yes it seems clunky and awkward alongside its younger rivals, but its maturity means there is damn all it can’t do. And if battery life is a high priority for you, a Symbian with a keyboard is probably impossible to beat.

 

Coming soon: The final phone round-up.

 

What Phone Is Right For You? 8 – Nokia Not Dead

Yeah, I think some people will enjoy using a phone that looks like this

I started this guide to choosing a phone not long after Nokia announced their game-changing deal with Microsoft. It seems fitting to conclude the series with the first fruit of that alliance.

Was the wait worth it? Yes. Not, alas, because the new Nokia phones are perfect. It would be wonderful to be able to say your phone-choosing dilemmas were all over, but there is still a way to go. They should be the last major development for a while though, so we know now what the real choices are.

And they are very promising. A few months back Nokia brought out the N9, their first phone with the Linux-based MeeGo operating system. It was a thing of beauty, with a genuinely novel all-touch interface and a unique body moulded and milled from hard polycarbonate and curved glass, but it seems certain now that the operating system is a dead end. It was pleasant if not wholly unexpected therefore to find that their new Lumia 800 is in many respects just a Windows Phone 7 version of the N9. (See them compared point-by-point here).

Or rather, Windows Phone 7.5 – the Nokia is one of the first phones with the new version of the Microsoft OS. And its greater polish, in combination with the the hardware refinement Nokia bring to the party, make the Microsoft system seem for the first time a credibly sexy alternative to iOS and Android.

This phone isn’t going to blow the iPhone 4S or the Galaxy S II away though. Its gestation has taken a long time, and consequently it isn’t right on the cutting edge when it comes to specifications. But I think it will be the first Windows phone to have real mass-market appeal, certainly in Europe. It’s different and eye-catching. In the US Nokia will need to find the good relationships with carriers that have eluded it until now, but with Microsoft at its back that seems eminently possible. Rumour has it indeed that they’re holding back the Lumia 800 so that they can launch with a version capable of using LTE (that is, 4G) on AT&T or Verizon’s network. That would quickly correct the impression most Americans have of Nokia as a maker of only low-end phones.

So though the Lumia may not quite be a world-beater yet, it probably does enough to put both Nokia and Microsoft on track. It lags way behind both Android and iPhone in terms of apps, but going a long way to counter this there’s a huge amount of excellent stuff built right – Office 365, Nokia Drive, XBOX Live, Bing Vision. And the interface, particularly in its bright and curvy Nokia incarnation, is very arguably better than even the iPhone’s. It’s certainly prettier. Would I buy it? I don’t think so. It’s delicious looks sorely tempt me, but I’ll wait for what they’ll come out with next. If they can get back onto the front line of hardware specs we will have a real three-way battle here.

But you should forget Nokia if you want a smartphone right now? No; don’t forget Symbian. Nokia’s previous operating system may have been around for a long time but – unlike MeeGo – it’s not about to go away. They’re still improving on it (the latest version is called Symbian Anna) and there are a great number of apps available. Yes it seems clunky and awkward alongside its younger rivals, but its maturity means there is damn all it can’t do. And if battery life is a high priority for you, a Symbian with a keyboard is probably impossible to beat.

 

Coming soon: The final phone round-up.

 

MeeGo – Born On Death Row?

It's the only phone in the world to be made entirely out of licorice

A few days ago I suggested that Nokia’s lovely N9 might be the last as well as the first phone to use the MeeGo operating system. Now it would seem that speculation is confirmed. Well, it is if you want to go by a single short article in a Finnish daily paper, but that’s the sort of scrap of information people are grabbing at – particularly people in the MeeGo development community, who of course are desperately invested in this.

It isn’t true. Not on a literal level at least, because there are in fact two MeeGo phones. And though the N950 will be available to developers only and not the general public, why would they be releasing a phone to help people develop apps if they don’t plan to have anything to run them on? I think CEO Stephen Elop means only to counter the opposite rumours – that the good reception the N9 received was going to make Nokia switch back to MeeGo as its main strategy. That was only ever a fantasy.

I strongly suspect however that Nokia plan to keep MeeGo going as a little back-burner project – much as it was until quite recently. Remember, MeeGo is not a new thing but just the latest in a line of semi-experimental products based on Linux: the 770, N800, N810 and N900. These were never big sellers either, but Nokia is a company that has done well in the past by fielding a range of niche products.

Is there any point in buying one though when, no matter how good the hardware is, it lacks the ingredient that makes or breaks a phone in the world today; If MeeGo isn’t going to be a commercial product, who’s going to make apps for it?

Well they don’t necessarily have to. Don’t forget that all software for Symbian phones – which are going to be with us for some years yet – is actually built for Nokia’s Qt framework, also used on MeeGo. Maybe Symbian apps haven’t exactly set the world on fire, but good recent phones like the N8 have revived them somewhat. Then of course, under the MeeGo skin the OS is basically Debian Linux. The Open Source community will be able to provide many heavy-duty applications, just as are currently available for Nokia’s earlier Linux devices.

And, it has Java. OK, big whoop. Java on phones has always been a should-have-been. Except… Android apps are basically Java, aren’t they? Running on a version of Linux too. With that similar basic structure, it should be fairly easy to port Android apps to MeeGo.

Easy, or even trivial – if an application that rejoices under the name of Alien Dalvik fulfils its promise. This is not an emulator; it allows Android apps to run natively under MeeGo. Now that would be something; the vast supply of Androids apps, on mobile Linux, on Nokia hardware. The user would have to assemble it themselves I guess, but they’d get a combination that could easily rival the official Windows product. The only question, I suppose, is whether it will be allowed to happen.

Nokia’s Last Hurrah

N9 © Nokia

There’s no argument, the N9 is a beautiful device. It’s almost hypnotically attractive, better perhaps than even the iPhone at the magical trick of making you feel that this is how phones were always meant to look. Sculpted from curved glass and a single block of matte polycarbonate, graced with a simple, powerful new operating system, this is the most radically restrained design that Nokia has ever produced. Aesthetically, that is; from a feature viewpoint it’s downright exuberant. All in all, a tour de force of phone engineering.

Only one question really: What exactly is it for?

This is not the first of Nokia’s new Windows phones, rather it is the first with MeeGo. First, and quite possibly last. For MeeGo is the operating system that Nokia were developing to take on the iPhone. Until they lost their nerve, decided it couldn’t possibly be done in time to save the company, and let themselves be bought into Windows Phone 7 instead.

And yet here’s a MeeGo phone, somehow ready before any Windows one. What exactly happened there?

It had to be this way. If the Windows device had come out first, MeeGo might have been allowed to drift on without ever becoming finished product, and MeeGo was the one chance Nokia’s designers had to prove to the world – and to their boss – that they could have taken on Apple and won.

Launching an already doomed product might seem a bizarre expense for an already beleaguered company, but not bringing MeeGo to fruition also had a price – one that might have been paid in resignations. The N9 may best be understood as a magnificent gift; from Nokia’s management, to Nokia’s talent.