N900 PUSHed as a hacker's best friend

by Dan Lane on 15th September 2009

This past Sunday I was invited to London’s Southbank to take a peek at a number of arty hacks centred around the new Nokia N900 tabletyphonething. The hackers involved were from Tinker.it, a creative consultancy that seems to specialise in making physical things that represent the digital world. A lot of what they do seems to revolve around the Arduino platform (a small microcontroller that can talk to sensors and various external modules) and Nokia gave them the task of taking us back to the 80′s.


The chaps from Tinker.it explain the Talk & Text hack

So we saw the N900 crammed into a Speak and Spell that sent SMS, a Rolodex that scrolled through the N900′s address book, an FM radio (where the phone took song requests by SMS and played artists from Last.fm through the 80′s FM radio via the N900′s built-in FM transmitter) and a weird contraption that had the innards of a Viewmaster replaced by an N900 that generated a 3D image which was in turn projected onto the wall thanks to the N900′s TV-out cable.


3D Viewmaster, powered by the N900 and Arduino

And all of that was a long-winded way of saying that the N900 and it’s Maemo operating system is open and hackable, it’s a way of showing that the N900 embraces it’s “mobile computer” strapline by having features such as USB host so you can connect peripherals to it. In fact the N900 would appear to be far more open and hackable than any other handset currently on the market, while Android claims to be open the truth is that with the exception of the Google Developer handset it’s only been released to the public in a locked down way. What Nokia have with Maemo is a platform that isn’t just loosely based on the Linux kernel (just the brains) like Android but is, in fact, a complete GNU/Linux system (the whole operating system, technically Linux is just the kernel… look, it’s complicated and you don’t want to get into the politics behind it but trust me, Maemo is far more open than Android). So, with the exception of the baseband firmware (the part of the system that controls the radio which will need to be locked down to avoid people doing naughty things to mobile networks) and perhaps the bootloader (code that tells the system how to start up) the entire thing is open. You could even ditch Maemo and write your own operating system from scratch (or port your own) if you feel like it.

So with all this talk of openness and linuxy nonsense the average consumer may be forgiven for thinking that this is a device just for hardcore geeks. Certainly the previous versions of Maemo used in Nokia’s phone-less tablet devices have done a reasonably poor job of hiding away their Linux origins from those who just don’t care and the challenge for Nokia is to only show it’s geeky underbelly when the user deliberately wants to see it. I suspect the newly revamped user interface will play a big part in that but having been disappointed with Ovi experiences in the past I fail to see how a straight port of the Ovi store will compete with stores from Apple and Google.


The N900 powered Rolodex

But anyway, I’m getting off topic! The topic here is about how the device is open and hackable and that doesn’t just mean connecting the handset in silly ways to obsolete toys, it means that if Nokia cocks up some of the core software on this phone or leaves out some essential feature then all it takes is someone with a compiler and some spare time to code up a fix… and that’s what openness is really about.

Another part of the event was to introduce a competition in which entrants suggest ways in which they’d connect an N900 to something they love and if their idea is chosen by an “expert judging panel” they’ll win N900 devices and funding to complete their project before it’s shown off in the Nokia flagship stores. While this actually sounds like a good idea the rules have yet to be properly published (I suspect their website is broken as the link isn’t working at the time of writing) so it’s all very vague. Anyway, my idea involves connecting the N900 to the flush mechanism on my toilet, I’ll need 100 N900 units and £10 million in funding. If you want to enter your own idea, check out the Nokia N900 PUSH website.

Update: The N900 PUSH website has now been updated with all the relevant rules and entry forms. Keep an eye out for a Really Mobile entry coming to your screens soon!


Apparently wearing 3D specs on your head was so cool in the 80's. In 2009... not so much.

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