Belle's Hell

We’re talking about Finnish engineering, so here’s a picture of Helsinki’s central metro station

All right, I’ve been in Finland for well over a week and so far I’ve avoided the N-word. The time has come, we have to face up to this.

Nokia – are they completely buggered?

You wouldn’t think so to look around here. There are Nokias everywhere. After that, the iPhone and maybe Blackberries. Though Samsung’s flagship Galaxy S III is being advertised on every vertical surface, I haven’t seen one in the wild – don’t see many Android phones at all.

Well, why use an imitation of the iPhone when you have the thing the iPhone imitated? Nokia were making smartphones years before Apple after all. And even today their Symbian operating system is in many ways…

No, I can’t do it. Much as I like the company, much as I like Finland, much as Symbian was once a really great operating system for smartphones, Nokia lost it there. It might have been said a year or so ago that they were at a crossroads. Today, it would be charitable to say they’re on a roundabout. Nokia now make phones with five different operating systems.

There’s Maemo/MeeGo. OK, that one we can pretty much write off as a noble experiment. There are S30 and S40, the systems for low- and mid-price phones respectively. There’s Windows Phone, the one Nokia is betting on to restore it to the leading edge of phone technology. And then, we have Symbian.

Poor Symbian.

Well actually we don’t, not anymore. The company clearly considers the name a liability, so Symbian^3 Anna (releases now have girls’ names) was superseded earlier this year by what’s known simply as Nokia Belle.

I just upgraded a friend’s phone to this latest (last?) iteration of the world’s first real smartphone OS. Aside from it coming with free Angry Birds, we hoped that it would be nicer to use than Anna. Despite being a Finn, my friend had never had a Symbian phone before and she thoroughly disliked it. Compared to her previous S60 one it just seemed needlessly complex.

An assessment I agree with – I’ve never understood why they felt that the controls had to be buried in folders within folders, divided into often confusing categories. You can spend ages on a Symbian phone trying to find how to change the ring tone, on the way passing all sorts of settings and features you never knew you needed – because you probably don’t. A little adventure really, but it also speaks volumes about the strengths and weaknesses of Symbian. It is incredibly mature, and over its twenty-odd years of development – if you trace back to its origins on the PDAs made by British company Psion – has accumulated a huge range of capabilities. But also, much now-unnecessary complexity.

For what it’s worth, Belle is an improvement. What Nokia have done – showing signs of desperation – is make it look and work a lot more like Android, even copying the ‘tray’ that slides down to display notifications and major settings. Gone are the layers of folders. But for people like my friend who upgrade to Belle it just makes the unfamiliar even more unfamiliar. And for new buyers, a resemblance to Android is hardly enough. If Symbian had been as close as this a couple of years ago, it might now have the momentum to rival Android for apps. But it appears inevitable that it will be phased out completely in the next couple of years – not just in name.

So is there any reason to choose a Symbian/Belle phone now?

Yes. The fact that it was designed from the start for the limited hardware of portable devices – indeed, the far more limited hardware of an earlier generation – means that to this day nothing can compete with a Symbian phone in terms of battery life. Plus it runs far better on low-end hardware than Android does. So if you need smartphone functionality and you don’t want to pay very much, seriously consider a cheap Nokia smartphone over a cheap Android such as Samsung’s dreadful Galaxy Y. In the year or two you might have it, that could add up to a couple of hundred fewer times you need to find a charger.

It’s sad perhaps that they won’t be keeping Symbian on just to fight that corner, but now is the time for Nokia to concentrate. They have S40 for good cheap “dumb” phones and, in Windows Phone 8, a smartphone OS that looks like it genuinely can compete with Apple and Google. Nokia I think will be all right – indeed, great again one day. It’s just sad that they have to sacrifice so much independence, and so much history.

Sayonara, Symbian.

And here’s a Finnish bridge

Home Of The Angry Bird

We encountered some genuine Finnish angry birds – gulls who dived at us to protect the chick here. Actual angry birds not shown due to copyright restrictions.

You know, before I got here I’d forgotten Angry Birds was a Finnish invention. There’s no forgetting after though – the merchandising is incredible. There are Angry Birds toys, Angry Birds sweets, Angry Birds drinks. There doesn’t seem to be a feature film or a cartoon series yet but that can only be a matter of time, the thing is practically a cartoon series already. They’re used to promote other products too of course. I upgraded a friend’s phone to the newest version of Symbian (more of that anon) almost purely so that she could get Angry Birds on it.

I have to hand it to makers Rovio for designing so brilliantly addictive a game – at one point me, my friend, and her daughter were all playing it at once – but I can’t help feeling that a lot of this is not so much merchandising as taking-advantage-of-childrenising. “l like playing Angry Birds therefore I want an Angry Birds drink” is the impulsive, associational desire of a mind that isn’t fully developed.

Yes OK I bought one. But that was research.

The drink was all right; a lot more fun though were the sweets, because they come in the shapes of the various bird types and you can mime their characteristic trajectories as they fly into your mouth.

To amuse the kids, I mean.

Expect Angry Birds Sweets in a shop near you soon. And then an improved version with more flavors. And then a version with different laws of physics.


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?

What Phone Is Right For You? – Index

Articles I’ve written to help you choose a phone.

English: Windows Phone 7 powered LG Panther(GW...

1 – The Scene

Why are there so many competing kinds of phone now?

2 – But First…

Remember you don’t have to get a high-end smartphone.

3 – Enter The Gladiators

A quick overview of the types available.

4 – The Business End

Phones for work: Windows Mobile, Windows Phone 7, and Blackberry.

5 – Apple Changes Everything

It’s the biggest thing to happen to mobile phones – and perhaps even computing – for years. What makes the iPhone so special?

6 – Paradigm Shift Hits The Fan

An aside on the present and future of mobile computing, and what the rise of the smartphone really means.

7 – I, Android

Only Google it seems were able to learn from what Apple did and react fast enough. Have they actually beaten them at their own game?

8 – Nokia Not Dead

One last throw of the die.


What Phone Is Right For You? 7 – I, Android

By Google - File:Android robot.svg,, CC BY 3.0,
Do people who bought iPhones suffer ‘Roid rage?

The war may be over already. By the time you read this, Google’s Android could have surpassed all other phone operating systems by the one significant metric remaining: Number of apps available. It is expected to overtake Apple’s App Store sometime during July, at around the 425,000 mark.

That was the final battle. It passed out Symbian as the most common OS on new phones late last year. At an estimated 57% of the titles in the store, it already has more than twice as many free apps to download as any other system. It is available on phones at a wide range of prices – pretty much all of them less than the iPhone. And at the top end of the scale, Samsung‘s Galaxy S II has received overwhelming critical acclaim, dethroning the iPhone 4 in such league tables as the respected PC Pro A-List. So you could say everything from the best to the cheapest smartphone runs Android. Can there be any reason not to go for it?

A few. Though there are already more free apps available for Android, iPhone is still way ahead with paid-for ones, which are (probably) going to be of higher quality. Moreover, all current Apple apps are going to work pretty well on any iPhone since the 3GS. With the wide variety of hardware running Android, you really have no idea what percentage of the available apps is going to work well for you.

And this gets to the nub of the difference between the iPhone and Android experience. IPhone is simpler, more controlled and managed. Android is more open, more free, more varied. And this will allow it to produce the best phone on the market, time and time again.

But some of the worst smartphones available are going to be running Android too.

If you buy a new iPhone you know it’s going to be one of the best phones available right now. If you opt for Android, you still have a lot of choosing left to do. Right now Samsungs are hot and Sony Ericssons are getting interesting, but it’s only a few months since HTC unquestionably made the best Android phones. It’s a whole market in itself, and a busy one. But if you want the widest choice of handset in a smartphone, then Android it has to be.


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.


What Phone Is Right For You? 5 – Apple Changes Everything

iPhone, Apple Inc.
Image by Cloud. via Flickr

Let’s get now to the ones people actually care about: The fun, fashionable phones – and the rivalry between Apple’s iPhone and Google’s Android.

When Apple first launched the iPhone, nobody guessed just how big apps were going to become. Smartphones had applications before this of course. It was possible to download software both for Windows Mobile and for Symbian. But these hadn’t exactly set the world on fire. In part, this was because the phones came with all the software necessary for normal use, and more beside. Most additional programs tended to be either created by businesses for their own use, or were ephemera like games. The bigger reason though was that these OSes ran on a wide range of phones, all with different hardware. Not just different processors, but different control button layouts, different keyboards, different abilities. Some phones might have cameras, 3G, Wi-Fi, GPS, others none of those. Anything but the most basic software was only really going to work on one specific phone, making the market unattractively fragmented for developers.

A big part of Apple’s success therefore was simply that there was only one iPhone, with a good set of hardware features for programmers to work with. Even more important though was the innovative touch interface. This seemed almost a gimmick at first glance. At second, it seemed brilliant – now all the area taken up on an ordinary phone for buttons and controls could be given over to a screen big enough for comfortable video or Web viewing. But even that was overlooking the real genius of the idea. One whole side of the iPhone was completely configurable – as display, as controls, or as any combination thereof. The whole user interface could be adapted to the intended task. This was what made the iPhone not just a clever phone, but a whole new order of device. A shape-changer. And this meant that as well as being a potentially profitable thing to develop software for, it was also – crucially – an interesting one.

So it’s a great phone for software developers. Is it the phone for you?


I Can’t Tell You Much

it's real :)
This is *not* the best phone ever. This one is hideous.

These are my first faltering steps, but I am blogging now on a hanheld device. It’s tricky, it has to be said.The tiny screen I can handle, but the microscopic keyboard with weird layout will take some getting used to.

That though could be said of anything from the latest iPhone to the cheapest Symbian or Android device. This one, in my opinion, is the greatest smartphone ever made – indeed, that perhaps ever will be made. Seriously.

But that’s all I can tell you right now. Partly of course to keep you guessing that bit longer.

And partly because I need to relearn how to type.


Microsoft and Nokia: A No-Win Situation? (Part 2)

NoWin CartoonYesterday I speculated that the smartphone market could devolve into a straight fight between Apple and Nokia-Microsoft. This would depend of course on people actually liking what the latter two companies have to offer. If they manage to combine the best of what they can do, the results should be impressive. But will they? Until the first phones come out, which will be October at the very soonest, we can only wait with bated breath. Windows Phone on Nokia has a lot to live up to.

Or perhaps, to live down. At a stroke, this deal effectively eliminated not only the world’s most popular smartphone OS, but also a promising alternative.

There were reasons for this. Symbian, with its pedigree stretching back to the very first handheld computers, was unwieldy when compared to the radical interface-orientation of its new rivals. To take one example, an operation as trivial as creating a screen icon for a newly installed app required digging down through menus within menus to find one called, of all things, “Standby Mode”. That just wasn’t good enough anymore.

To deliver a slick modern experience, Symbian needed to be drastically rebuilt. Nokia dithered about this, working on both an improved form (Symbian^3) and its slated successor (MeeGo) in parallel. And so ended up with one system that was serviceable but unimpressive and another that was impressive but unserviceable. Meanwhile, Apple and Google were eating their market share alive.

But there was another company that knew its smartphone OS needed to be replaced, and it pulled the trick off with surprising alacrity. This of course was Microsoft.

The case for simply adopting the software giant’s solution seems compelling now, but few predicted it. Even when former Microsoft executive Stephen Elop became Nokia’s CEO last September, rumours that he planned to move his old office furniture in with him seemed merely mischievous. Abandoning their own OS development would be a move Nokia could never take back, and so lead to almost irrevocable dependence on a company that had up till then been a bitter rival.

It was only with the recent leak of Elop’s harsh memo that the hints became impossible to ignore. In it he used the metaphor of a “burning platform” – as in, you don’t jump into the cold ocean until you realise your oil rig is on fire – to illustrate just how drastically Nokia needed to change. But the language was hardly even coded; platform in computing terms means the combination of hardware and operating system a program runs on. In fact Nokia had only recently rebranded Symbian as the “Symbian Platform”. The writing was on the wall for an OS that, with its roots in the Psion Organiser of the 80s, is almost a cultural artefact.

But it may be missed by more than just a few sentimental geeks. A mobile OS from the start, Symbian was designed with security and frugal energy demands as priorities, and decades of development have given it considerable depth. Too much perhaps, if you’re trying to find a particular facility within its maze of menus, but there is little you might want a phone to do that isn’t there. And this includes many features that are not yet in Windows Phone 7. Well-loved old ones, like tethering, swapping data cards, full multitasking, compatibility with a vast range of media formats. New ones well in advance of its rivals, like USB On-The-Go which allows you to connect a phone directly to flash drives and hard disks.

Features that may never return if, like the iPhone, it is developed primarily as a system for delivering services and digitally managed content. Unless much happens between now and the first Nokia with Windows, former Symbian users may consider it limited and disappointing. Don’t be surprised if they dub it the No-Win.

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