Opinion: The Nokia N900

by Dan Lane on 13th November 2009

For some reason the mobile industry has started to bore me. There has been very little released recently that has actually excited me. No real revolution to speak of. There was a new revision of the iPhone in the iPhone 3GS, Android has continued it’s slow plodding march to world domination and there was that Palm Pre thing but to be honest I was more excited about having some beers and a chat to the nice O2 PR people than I was about that particular device.

The N900 as seen in our recent VoIP on the N900 feature

The N900 as seen in our recent VoIP on the N900 feature

No, not much has happened in the mobile world during 2009 to cause me to get particularly excited. I am suffering, if you will, from a bout of mobile depression.

I want to get excited about Nokia devices. They try so hard to engage with people and they have been banging out more handsets than anyone else recently. It’s just that they have a knack of getting me really excited about a device before release and then what eventually arrives in my hands ends up being some annoying half-assed effort that I’d just feel resentful of if I were tied into using it for the full duration of an 18 month contract. I waited so long for an N-Series S60 handset with a QWERTY keyboard and a decent camera that by the time the N97 came around S60 had become old and haggard by modern smartphone OS standards and it didn’t have a hope in hell of dragging me away from an iPhone or Android handset.

Similarly Nokia’s Maemo based range of internet tablet devices has never really been up to much and always felt to me like an R&D project that got out of hand and accidentally made it to market before anyone could shoot it in the head.

So when Nokia announced that the N900 would be a meeting of the traditional N-Series standards combined with the Internet Tablet form factor and based on a brand new version of Maemo I was thoroughly underwhelmed. In fact I recall a conversation I had with someone in which we both agreed that we’d probably buy one for the shiny factor but it’ll just be a big disappointment and that we should set our expectations accordingly. In our coverage of the N900 announcement at Nokia World I said that I was a little bit excited about it but Nokia have built up my hopes for the very last time and that I expect this device to be utterly disappointing and that this would be the final nail in the coffin of our troubled relationship. A relationship that started well over a decade ago with a simple game of Snakes.

Yet I find myself sitting here at my desk two months later cradling what is, in my not so humble opinion, the best mobile device that Nokia has ever produced.

That resistive touchscreen I was so worried about? it’s so very responsive and yes, it does come with a stylus but it’s useful for when you use the innovative mouse-cursor mode on the built in browser to switch between using the device as an iPhone style touchscreen or a full on desktop-style browser (after-all, the built-in browser isn’t just based on Firefox, it IS FireFox!).

Back on the subject of the screen, the entire device is about the same size as the previous N800 tablet’s screen yet the N900 somehow packs the same number of pixels into it’s 3.5 inch display. Such high pixel density combined with Maemo’s incredible font-rendering engine results in an absolutely stunning full web browsing experience that makes the iPhone’s Safari browser feel like you’re using a ZX Spectrum.

Aside from the slightly disorientating way of multi-tasking in which the menu button will switch tasks if any are running yet go to the menu if there aren’t any (having said that, it does become intuitive very quickly) the menu system will be familiar to anyone who has used an S60 handset while the settings “applets” are from the Maemo side of things. While this sounds like a clumsy mishmash it actually works quite well and I found it quite easy to configure my Google Mail account using Mail for Exchange and found the built-in e-mail client to be far superior, yet comfortably familiar to the mail client built-in to S60 even in the pre-release software my N900 is running.

N900 OVI Store - Coming soon!

N900 OVI Store - Coming soon!

At the time of writing the OVI store has yet to go live on this device and when it does I’m sure it’ll be a huge disappointment, but wait! Am I sure of this? I was sure that the N900 would be a huge disappointment but it simply isn’t. No, I’m absolutely sure that the OVI Store will be a huge disappointment on any device. But that doesn’t matter here, behind Maemo sits the reliable Linux kernel and the GNU userspace tools and alongside those is the trusty APT package management system. Non Linux people don’t care about this and neither will most N900 purchasers but APT is a package distribution tool taken from Debian Linux (it’s also used in the popular Ubuntu Linux and is the basis for app distribution on jailbroken iPhones, Cydia is a front-end for APT). The N900′s App Manager tool is simply a (very nice) front-end for APT which lets users add and browse repositories of applications from both Nokia and third parties. APT also handles application upgrades so users will always have the latest version of an installed app available from a little icon in the status bar. If a developer wants to distribute an application for Maemo they can just setup a simple APT repository and serve the app themselves, there is no horrible approval process to go through. This does mean there are two sources of applications, the APT-Based App Manager (and any repositories you add to it) or the OVI store and APT doesn’t have any payment mechanisms in-place but wouldn’t it be nice if the OVI Store on the N900 were just a payment gateway and front-end for APT? We shall see what surfaces once the OVI store launches!

The camera is of the quality we’ve come to expect from recent N-Series Nokia handsets, it’s quick and produces decent quality photos in a variety of conditions. What I particularly liked was the ease of geotagging, tagging and sharing through online services such as PixelPipe. This was fast and trouble-free and I actually found it an absolute joy to use. There is nothing worse than missing out on a moment that was worth photographing because the camera application didn’t load quick enough or because you were too busy labelling the photo you just took.

So far I guess I’ve been gushing about this phone and that’s not something I expected to do but I’m afraid it can’t be all good news, at least not for the time being. The best thing is, it’s not down to Nokia to fix the most troubling aspect of this handset, it may actually be down to YOU!.

The biggest downfall of the N900 is application support.

When Nokia release a new S60 handset they have a whole catalogue of applications available for it and there are established S60 developers out there constantly churning out new applications. Sadly no Maemo device has achieved any level of success and so the application support is lacking. Not to mention the huge differences between previous versions of Maemo make most old applications useless on the N900. So we have few established developers and almost no existing applications. That’s what stops me throwing away my iPhone 3G and moving to the N900 right now, it’s all about the 3rd party apps and the N900 doesn’t even have a Google Maps application yet (it does have Nokia Maps, don’t get me started on that).

If I were Nokia I’d be throwing money (or at least devices, as I understand they have been doing for some existing S60 developers) at iPhone developers right now. Let’s get clever independent developers like Ed Lea developing for the N900 instead of the iPhone and the N900 might stand a chance of competing. Perhaps that’s what the N900 is really for, perhaps this device is for the developers and geeks to dip their toes into Maemo so there will be a wealth of applications for the (theoretical) N910 consumer device?

A part of me can’t help but think that even if the developers do arrive and make some excellent applications it’s just too late for a new platform to compete with the iPhone and Android. That there isn’t a commercial reason for the big name app developers to move away from their current revenue streams and that the N900 and Maemo 5 will become victim of a cruel catch-22 situation where users won’t come until the apps are available and the apps never become available because nobody wants to develop for a platform with no users. I really hope this doesn’t happen but with the extra crippling effect of the poor OVI store user experience I can’t see how Maemo 5 could possibly be a success, which is a shame as it really does have the potential to be the Nokia fanboys definitive wet dream.

Nokia didn’t actually lend us an N900 review unit and so far pre-ordered units have failed to ship (Nokia stores claim to have stock available and will be selling the device on Monday). In fact even James Whatley, one of my Really Mobile co-founders and Director of Engagement Strategy at 1000 Heads (the company behind Nokia WOM World), is having trouble getting his hands on one so I quite literally stole this one from Ewan at Mobile Industry Review (whose new weekly newsletter competes with my regular Friday posting slot here on The Really Mobile Project).

Now I have to give this unit back, will I buy one? No, not just yet. For now I’ll stick with my app-laden iPhone, but if the applications arrive for Maemo 5 then I’ll be banging on the door at the Nokia store (hey, that rhymes!)

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