The Nokia N900 – Escape from the Cloud and Jail?

Next week Nokia World 2009 will be held in Stuttgart and while I am waiting for the press to give me the details of the event while I am roaming in the Scottish highlands I've been thinking a bit about what Nokia's recent announcements around the new Nokia N900 could mean for the future of mobile devices.

To me, the current smartphone market by and large looks as follows:


For the moment I am still stuck with my S60 driven Nokia N95. The OS so far is closed source but anyone can develop programs for it and does not depend on Nokia to allow or certify anything if the developer thinks the user can handle a couple of warnings during program installation. To get rid of them, programs can be certified by Nokia / S60, which takes a bit of time, but unless the program does something really malicious, Nokia / S60 have no preconceptions on what should be allowed or not. While this sounds all great and a lot of applications are available, S60 has lost a lot of mindshare in the past 18 months. Many developers are now preferring the iPhone OS or Android when it comes to new and cool stuff. On top, Nokia has decided to strip out a couple of cool features in its latest phones such as VoIP, a killer argument for me against buying another S60 phone in the future.

The Jail

And then, of course, there is the iPhone. Great marketing, great user interface, very easy to use. Unfortunately, it has no multitasking and Apple is pretty opinionated on what should run on the iPhone and what not. The latest Apple / Google quarrel is a good example. No, thank you, not my piece of cake, either. When I buy a device, I should be the one to decide what I want to run on it and what not.

The Cloud

Next, there's Android. Based on Linux and undoubtedly very innovative, it is most useful if the user shares his private data with Google servers in the cloud. From a usage perspective, it's great, as your e-mail, address book, documents, etc. are available and synchronized between all devices of a user. I like that a lot but I don't like sharing my private data with Google or with anyone else for that matter. Private synchronization or connected home services are the way forward to me. For details, see here.

The Rest: And then there are OS'es like Windows Mobile and the the Palm Pre's WebOS which either fall into one of the categories above or in between.

The N900 – To The Rescue?

So what I want from a mobile device is quite simply described:

  • An OS for which new and innovative programs are developed for
  • Multitasking
  • My private data should be treated privately
  • I decide which programs I want to use on my device and no one else.

Or in short: The same experience as I have on my PC and my netbook: I decide!

With Nokia announcing the Linux / Meamo based N900 smartphone I am getting my hopes up again a bit. Maemo has already been around for a number of years now on Nokia's Internet tablets so I have a fair idea of what it is and what it is not. While I've so far not been very impressed by it due to lacking 2G / 3G support, wrong form factor and slow speed, Nokia seems to have an answer to all of that with the N900. 600 MHz processor speed should hopefully take care of speed issues, 2G/3G network support has been added and the physical dimensions of the device are in the same ballpark as my current N95. Also, Nokia says that it will be VoIP capable.

On top, Maemo, at least up until now, has been a very open platform from various angles: First, it's based on Linux so it's very well known in the developer community. Second, unlike with Android, where applications developers have to work with a Java framework for their applications and have no direct access to the OS, Maemo works just like a PC based Linux distribution: (Almost) everything is fully open to developers, existing programs can easily be ported to Maemo and there is no lengthy certification process. In other words, while Android is based on Linux but doesn't give access to it to applications, Maemo fully does, unless, Nokia decides to remove that openness in the new version of Maemo. Let's hope not.

So if Nokia plays it right, they will make developers happy, they will make users like me happy and they've sold their first smartphone in two years to me!

Diversity Rules

But don't get me wrong here, I don't argue for a full and open Linux phone to be the one and only answer. I think there's also a place for devices that do fewer things, that are not as configurable and expandable, that are more tightly controlled. The reasons for that are plenty: Ease of use, better support from manufacturers or network operators for users, etc. etc. While many users might want that on their PC world and thus might prefer it in the mobile world too, there are many, like me, who thrive on openness!

5 thoughts on “The Nokia N900 – Escape from the Cloud and Jail?”

  1. One of the attractive features of Symbian and Android is the app store where developers can sell their apps. I have not noticed this for Maemo (all the apps I have downloaded from Maemo have been free). If Nokia does create an app store like Symbian, I expect they will add certification for Maemo apps, too.

  2. Hi Martin, I’m about where you are. I have an N95 8GB and haven’t seen anything really worth upgrading to yet. N900 looks tempting.

    It’s faintly unseemly to keep upgrading one’s phone, as some people appear to do. At 500 Euro shouldn’t these things last a couple of years? I guess you can sell on the old ones.

  3. Hi Chris,

    From my point of view an application store itself is not a bad thing. Actually, I think it is a necessary element to increase the popularity and usefulness of the device for the mainstream audience. But once such a store is made an exclusive resource, i.e. any other means of loading applications onto the device are prevented, the platform becomes a walled garden. So hopefully Maemo will be tied-in e.g. into the Ovi store while freedom of the platform is maintained. We will see…


  4. Hi Gabriel,

    yes, expectations… 🙂

    I think a replacement cycle of 18 months and fierce competition to launch something new at least every 6 months makes it difficult for vendors to support a mobile device for more than a couple of months. I don’t want to make excuses for them but that seems to be how it works these days.

    But let’s see maybe the N900 is different. I wonder how if this device separates the cellular hardware from the rest of the device like how it done for example with a PC and a 3G dongle or a netbook with mini-PCI 3G hardware or if it is as integrated as other phones today. If the cellular part is separate, then maybe Nokia will/can support the Linux part much longer than what we have so far seen on S60 smartphones. Not sure if the latest Maemo version still supports the first Internet tablet but it for sure does at least the latest two devices.


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