Nokia’s N9: Cool, Cruel and Unusual

Unlike many friends and former Nokia colleagues, I have not had the pleasure of fondling a sexy new N9 so this won’t be a product review as much as a process and philosophy review.  That means something a little less structured than usual and loaded with unabashed opinion, pontificating and ranting.

So buckle up, this should be a ride that would do Tomi Ahonen proud.  

We have ignition…

Maemo and MeeGo community advocates didn’t begin with high expectations for the Nokia Connection 2011 event in Singapore on June 21.  Lacking the presentation pizzazz of Apple or even Microsoft, Nokia has a mixed history with this sort of thing and has too often bombed when it needed to blow something up.  So when we were bored with a Symbian Anna demo followed by an even more tiresome spiel on S40, the peanut gallery in a IRC webchat augmented Nokia’s endless warm-up with the usual locker room antics.  CEO Steven Elop had promised a disruption; we were just distracted.

Then Marko Ahtisaari calmly and quietly claimed the stage.

Speculation had run rampant over who would more likely stun us with the allegedly disruptive device, but the consensus had correctly pinned Marko as the man.  He sealed the deal by very quickly getting down to business.

A presenter’s presenter, the well-spoken Ahtisaari peeled away layers of the slick N9 with the deftness of a professional magician.  I can’t speak for anyone else but our little web gathering was enthralled.  The catcalls and comic relief abruptly ceded to what amounted to geek sexting.  That’s the magic of what Nokia has pulled off here, with impeccable industrial design and a clever UI just begging to be swiped.

That’s also the problem.

The MeeGo Mambo

When Elop announced Nokia’s head-scratching new strategy (and I use that last term extremely loosely) back in February of this year, there was the promise of an undescribed MeeGo device to be produced at some point, to be followed by an anticlimactic year-long ramp-down of the project once hailed as Nokia’s high-end salvation.   Never mind that the N9 isn’t running pure MeeGo (but rather a mish-mash of Maemo 6 and MeeGo parts now curiously labeled as MeeGo 1.2 Harmattan).  To any end user, it’s MeeGo enough.

But the question becomes: why?

Why release something designed to run what is, for Nokia, a dead-end OS?  Elop says this otherwise-seductive N9 is intended as a test-bed for future Windows Phone 7 devices.  But how many consumers tolerate being tested?  Those few who fell in with Nokia’s steps 1 through 4 with Maemo can be forgiven for feeling too defeated to step up for number 5.  That would make the N9 a profit sink at a time when Nokia’s stock (NOK) is severely depressed.

Is this just a stopgap until Windows Phone 7 graces similar Nokia hardware?  If so, will enough purchasers succumb in the meantime to this obviously alluring work of art to at least cover its costs?

Conspiracy theorists are having a field day with this, pointing to admittedly mind-boggling statements and steps that, like the pieces from different puzzle sets, do not fit together.  One of the more prevailing and extreme speculations is that the N9’s strange release is actually a deliberate move by Microsoft-via-Nokia to torpedo the prospects of MeeGo– not just within Nokia’s domain, but in toto.  The old Fear/Uncertainty/Doubt (FUD) machine grinding up another competitor.  I’m resisting this line of thought, but… but…

The Maemo Legacy

Nokia struggled with its last Maemo device, the N900 mobile computer, both in terms of consumer adoption and reliability issues.  Can the company afford to repeat that with the N9?  And will the life of the typical N9 exceed Nokia’s willingness to support it?  The track record isn’t good there.

It’s all… bewildering.

Back to the device unveiling.  Again, Elop referred to this little beauty as disruptive.  He even went so far as to invoke his favorite word, ecosystem, although the N9 doesn’t appear to come with one.

So what could the N9 disrupt?  Well, so far it’s done a number on the MeeGo and Maemo communities, particularly the latter. members are largely polarized on included or excluded features like hardware keyboards, Adobe Flash support and HDMI.  Nothing new there.  But this is likely the last time the Maemo community could survive a foundation-fracturing device.  It’s already on shaky ground as legacy Maemo devices and long-standing community leaders run out of steam or just plain run out.

Long Limbs, Thin Ice

Many Maemo/MeeGo fans are looking at the glossy N9 with a glint of hope.  Maybe, just maybe goes the logic,  success for the N9 could change Elop’s mind on MeeGo.  Maybe the Linux-based operating system really is a Plan B– one that advances to Plan A under the right circumstances.  If Windows Phone 7 falters, and that’s a reasonable conjecture based on current sales, what else is Nokia going to do?  Stay with Symbian, which it tossed over to Accenture?  Elevate S40?  I don’t think even bringing Qt to S40 could happen fast enough.  If the N9 sells out completely, or close enough, will that trigger a slow-down in Nokia’s ramp-down?  If so, does Nokia have the ready staff for it, or have too many abandoned the wayward ship?

Detractors are saying this is all pointless, that there’s no room for MeeGo in a two-horse Android-plus-iOS world.  How selective amnesia can be; there wasn’t room for them, either, a few years ago when Symbian owned the playing field.

MeeGo could actually succeed with a similar approach to Apple’s: highly target a select demographic comprised of, say, fifteen to twenty percent of a given population and please them to no end.  But instead of the same demographic, cater to those at the complete opposite end of the open-closed spectrum.  In other words, the Maemo/MeeGo crowd in addition to those largely invested in Android because it isn’t iOS.  Then let Android, WP7, and the rest battle for the middle.  Select markets generate higher margins than mass markets, as Nokia has learned the hard way.

Summing Up

I found the Singapore event a crude juxtaposition of a lethargic local (and similar) market address awkwardly combined with a brief, exciting N9 reveal.  This was the wrong venue to introduce this device.  The better one would have been the MeeGo Conference 2011, which sorely needed it.

Those who read here regularly will expect me to be completely candid, so I won’t disappoint.  There are aspects of the N9 I don’t like.  Sealed-in battery, lack of memory card slot, last year’s CPU, and a few others.  But I’m not the type to lose the forest for the trees.  From a big picture perspective, I love the Nokia N9.  Yes I drooled over its renderings.  Yes I find that uniquely-curved screen to be cool enough to touch.  Yes I want one NOW.  I will forgive the known shortcomings.  Heck, even Engadget likes it.

And as for MeeGo: it still enjoys strong support from Intel and partners.  It just needs a high-profile, lust-inducing handset to improve its consumer recognition prospects.  The N9 shows it can be done in spades, despite Elop’s disputable claims to the contrary.

I fully intend to explore this further.  Probably in many directions.  Where that goes might well be determined by you readers.  I am expecting an interesting mix of comments on this article.  Don’t disappoint!


51 responses to “Nokia’s N9: Cool, Cruel and Unusual

  1. Pingback: Nokia's N9: Cool, Cruel and Unusual | Tabula Crypticum | Maemo Meego

  2. No mention of te N950 dev device? Son, I am disappoint. Seriously though, very well put, and I must say I agree on pretty much all accounts. I want two N9’s so they can NFC eachother…

  3. When did he say that about N9 being a testbed? In Singapore?

    If the idea is to release “first versions” of hardware to the Linux guys, who are more likely to enjoy being early adopters, and let WP7 get just last-quarter’s hardware, I’m fine with that. Would hate for Nokia to release such a great design for the WP7 and not MeeGo. Testbed me, baby. Just don’t give me unglueing USB ports, that is too much. Or “flimsy hinges” (will we ever know the truth about that?)…

    Now, about MeeGo and the so-called “strategy”, I think we should be fair to Elop, and recognize he has been keeping a place for MeeGo, inside the “future disruptions” box or whatever. I still find the whiteboard story ludicrous. I am still confused regarding Symbian. But not MeeGo.

    All that happened is that people insisted that the company had something called “the main operating system”, or platform or ecosystem or whatever. What was Nokia’s previous “main” OS in the past, nobody knows (S60? Was Symbian^3 ever the ‘main’? Maemo??…). Then the crown was promised to MeeGo, then an usurper took the throne. Oh, the “main operating system of the company” title that we cannot afford to live without now is Ballmer’s for him to do whatever he wants!!… What do we care??

    Does that title really matter for Nokia’s new Linux-based thingy (to avoid calling it either Maemo MeeGo Harmattan or smartphone or mobile computer) to be a success? To keep its current customers, and maybe gain more?… Does that mean the company would pour more resources?

    Hey, the thing’s got Maps on it!! The N900 didn’t get that. This is a huge victory. It didn’t have to be the company’s “main” OS for that to happen.

    …Anyway, I feel whatever will keep massive amounts of people from buying this instead of Ios or Android (I think this will happen, while wishing I could be proven wrong) is not related to it being “the main OS” of the company. Nor it’s related to it having maps. It’s something much more complicated that we can’t barely start to envision. And all the “strategy” talks, and burning platforms etc are just noise from politics, this also has nothing to do either with the actual business, or with the tech.

    I finish now saying I want that right now too. I have been wanting that “right now” for like months. And I know that I will unfortunately keep wanting that, because the damn thing will delay and delay and delay. And I am pissed of about that. I am furious. I hate Nokia’s guts, HATE. But I will hate them alllllll that time until I get it in my hands. I will continue hating, but I will never get any other device. I couldn’t use anything else. I am trying to use an Android phone, and it just doesn’t work for me. It has to be the N9. But oh, what a painful life.

    Sorry for the extra long comment, you are the one evoking Tomi Ahonen. 🙂

  4. “One of the more prevailing and extreme speculations is that the N9′s strange release is actually a deliberate move by Microsoft-via-Nokia to torpedo the prospects of MeeGo– not just within Nokia’s domain, but in toto. The old Fear/Uncertainty/Doubt (FUD) machine grinding up another competitor. I’m resisting this line of thought, but… but…”

    The Elop interview on todays Helsingin Sanomat certainly gives more steam to the tinfoil speculation.

    Elop says no more Meego devices from Nokia even if it is successful. 😦

  5. I could forgive the lack of flash, no memory card and the rest but I’m never going to buy another phone without a hardware keyboard. It’s a real shame that the N950 will never be widely available, it looks pretty much like my dream phone.

    I’m not keen on the swipe gesture being owned by the OS though, that makes awesome UIs like Tweetdeck impossible.

    • The (lack of) hardware keyboard certainly seems to be the most polarizing issue. For me it isn’t one, in fact I rarely use the N900’s– but I do understand that some feel very strongly on this.

      I would prefer the ability to slide on a thin third-party keyboard when I wanted. 😉

      As for swipe– it’s part of the UX, not Os– but point taken.

    • Martin Alderson

      I am not familiar with tweetdeck, but looking at some videos of it I would say it would work on the N9 in the same way as scrolling around a webpage works. The swipe gesture to go back to the homescreen starts off the edge of the screen, whereas application gestures start within the screen.

  6. Don’t assume this is the end of Maemo/Meego. Have you considered that Microsoft could use the Maemo/Meego work as the platform for a future Microsoft OS? They must see the writing on the wall with respect to open source and are not completely stupid. This gives them an out. It’s better to have an open source platform under your influence than not.

  7. My guess is we will see this swipeUI in WP8.

    But I prefer buy the original 🙂

    N9 Rumored to be released end of september in Sweden. Hell long waiting 😦

  8. The unveiling of the n9 revealed something to us all. Elop has not been truthful about MeeGo, we were made to believe that it was not ready, but from review and the very positive reception the device is receiving even from traditional Nokia critics, we now know someone in Nokia spread fur about the state of MeeGo so as to make it not a viable option for Nokia. There is no way elop can claim not to be working in the interest of MS here. For one MeeGo as it is now has more features (in terms of multitasking, copy and paste) and has a more matured and robust base than wp7 which is really still very immature. if u add the fact that beside the iOS, MeeGo is the only other mobile is which supports native codes. meaning it would allow developers to build very powerful applications without the restrictions of that comes with developing for apple ecosystem. which ever way u look at it. MeeGo is a no brainier compared to wp7. it gives the company control, its new and fresh and comes with exciting new ideas and awesome. it comes with iPhone 3gs hardware but it rocks it and fast and snappy as heck. showing what many of us already knows. MeeGo can even be thrown on older hardware and still sing. it would give Nokia a fight back and give them back their pride and mojo. concerning r and d MeeGo has the support of a huge fanatical community who are ready to do lots of heavy lifting, it is based a kernel that is developed by 1000s of hackers around the world and a shining example of software collaboration that works ands makes economic sense for companies, it uses stacks from already established free software communities. webkit, pulseaudio, X or wayland, telepathy, gstreamer and numerous others. hence MeeGo is using components already used and developed by other free software community hence the amount of work Nokia had to put in is minimal. and allows them focus on integrating this components to their MeeGo device. how someone saw this and decided to kill the OS in place of one that is yet to establish itself and has been doing very poorly inspire of all the billions Microsoft is throwing at it. why take a risk with someone else’s project while killing your own project (which is better in any way you look at it) somethings really don’t add up. I don’t see MeeGo succeeding under this management. There would do everything to ensure MeeGo does not succeed. already the price been touted and the fact that the device is scheduled for a limited release in few countries (which does not include the us) and on September after the iPhone 5. no matter the case MeeGo is put in a no win situation where Nokia even scare away potential 3rd party developers to ensure that an ecosystem pronounced as dead stay dead. its a shame really.

  9. The n9 have really good comments on many pseudo tech blog. But probably because it s look like an iPhone candy bar design. While there is positive comment, it address a bit the same market, a bit less the geeky niche market.

    Personnaly i ll not bought it, due to the lack of keyboard, i can ‘t code directly on it. But this isn’t an usual use case.

    The nuclear torpedo i see is that it s not a true MeeGo, but i think it s a try to fragment MeeGo Handset. The closed gui app isn’t the problem, but having different api in many parts is (QML Components for example). A good integrated app for harmattan have good chance to require a gui redesign to be ported on other MeeGo devices.

    Also to not present it at the MeeGo Conf in SF look like from exterior at a war between MeeGo integrist and Nokia.

    And something which i would like to see is that this device success but also other MeeGo devices with a keyboard and other form factor to let users bought what they want. Currently in the current mobile phone market chossing a os mean no choice in the device (WebOS, Meego, Maemo, iOS). Except with android os which probably explain it s success.

    • The QML Components project (announcement, planning, initial release date) predates the Intel counterpart (which is actually not MeeGo Handset – it’s MeeGo Tablet, with the promise of eventually making it to Handset or maybe even Core). It’s also a departure from the ‘upstream first’ philosophy. It’s interesting to bring up the fragmentation argument – it’s not like the MeeGo project didn’t know about Harmattan, it’s no more or less fragmenting than if Nokia was still in the MeeGo camp. It was Intel who shifted architecture and component choices because they (might) have perceived Nokia cannot or will not deliver some of them in time. The (re-)open sourcing of QtComponents (with some Harmattan related material) is ongoing as we speak. Is it more ready than what the newborn MeeGo (table) UX components do ? Should MeeGo include it ? That is up to MeeGo.

      • Achipa, thx for precisions.

      • I find it very interesting that Elop and Intel both made decisions based on the same perception, that the Nokia Linux team “cannot or will not deliver … in time”.

        I wish there were some way I could learn what really happened inside Nokia around the Linux project. With a technically strong team, a good vision, and great technology, why did it take them so very very long to produce anything? Why couldn’t they pump the devices out the door?

      • As a former Nokia engineer who supported Maemo devices I am highly skeptical of Elop’s negative assessments. The Maemo effort was run on a virtual shoestring but still managed to get devices out– a fully-funded effort would have been tremendously successful. It all comes down to how serious executive leadership is about their product(s). The capability WAS there, I guarantee it.

      • Wasn’t Maemo / MeeGo well funded near the end, though? All the Nokia strategy slides I saw in 2009-2010 showed MeeGo in the high-end “Aspirational” corner. That suggests they were pumping money into the project, no? Was the N900 produced on a shoestring? Was Harmattan starved for cash? If so, that might explain something…

      • I don’t know if MeeGo Devices ever got the resources they really needed. I get the feeling they didn’t. It was never near the level of Symbian, and IF MeeGo was to replace that, well, at some point you reverse the numbers…

  10. onethreealpha

    Great read Texrat. I guess we know what the N9 is. Now we wait to see what it isn’t.
    I’m not beyond seeing the possibility of a harmattan style UI on WP devices and yet given the spruiking of Alien Dalvik on the N9, maybe Nokia is hoping to fill the Ovi/Nokia app store with packaged apk files….

  11. Good read. One thing not mentioned is the lack of coverage in major markets – UK, USA, Germany, India and Canada. This is indeed cruel. Consumers from these markets who are interested in the device might take a look at Nokia’s track record with the n900 USB issue and get second thoughts about importing the product.

  12. In the art of war (or business), a general (CEO) must watch their flanks and not leave exposed their weaknesses while showcasing their best weapons, which are best held in reserve. Here, Nokia seems to be doing everything to its disadvantage.

    It first brings forward its flagship weapon (N9 w/ MeeGo/Harmattan), showing it off to the world as a truly capable and competitive system; but accompanies this showing with promises that it will be abandoning its development. “Here,” it says, “take my best ideas, my crown jewels, my strategic company assets; I no longer plan to use this anymore, as I can buy my assets from an ally in order to win this war.” It would be analogous to the US showcasing its best stealth aircraft with the most advanced sensors and communications systems, while saying it will no longer develop the technology; instead it will commit the country’s security by a strategy of buying its stealth aircraft from another continent. “Do what you will with this, I no longer need it.”

    But the observers to this show are many. With its eyes squarely on Google and Apple, Nokia seems to be ignoring the hordes who have been jealously watching the titans battle it out for mind and market share, waiting for the opportunity to find a “disruptive technology” that can be leveraged in their domain and can catapult their products to success on the battleground of the marketplace. One can ponder how many companies, with names we don’t immediately recognize or whose markets don’t match Nokia’s, are watching this device announcement and this open OS and contemplating the opportunities.

    Nokia has shown what is possible, and then plans to walk away. Sun Tzu’s insights might have helped Nokia plan a different course.

  13. i bought a nokia n8 2 weeks back. got lots of doubts abt this new phone. nokia is not reliable after all

    • So releasing the N9 now makes even less sense.

      And I’ve seen demos depicting WP7 on a phone very similar (if not identical) to the N9 but running WP7. Interestingly, the target markets for the N9 and WP7 devices are mutually exclusive…

      • Randomcommenter

        Wondering why you think the target markets would be mutually exclusive? My geekyness may cloud my perception but I feel that the N9 is targeted to precisely the same market as WP7, which I thought was also the reason Nokia will not release both phones in the same country. Given the 2 phones in the same store, I don’t think a “regular user” will immediately discard the N9 in favor of the WP7 phone, while a geek will probably immediately head to the N9.

      • Because that’s what Nokia has now confirmed: regions where the N9 is sold will not see the WP7 version and vice-versa. Maybe the word “market” was the problem though– it can have multiple meanings. In this case “regional market” was the meaning. Sorry for the confusion.

  14. Stephen Elop (Nokia) does not like Meego because he is Balmer’s friend.

  15. Pingback: I Need a New Phone | Tabula Crypticum

  16. “Leaking” a WP7 device and giving a highly discouraging interview to Helsingin Sanomat just two days after the announcement isn’t going to help N9 at all. It almost feels like Nokia doesn’t want N9 to succeed and for someone like you who has worked on N900, this must be a deja-vu.

    • Well, I supported the 770 and N800 but was working in another area of Nokia when the N810 (and then N900) came out– but to your point, the N800 is even more relevant here. It was a well-designed product, packaged nicely, but tossed over the wall with poor support. Nokia didn’t seem to care if it thrived or failed– and that was before Steven Elop. Of course, that’s my impression as someone who was highly passionate about the product line, both as employee and user.

      But yes, previously Nokia’s approach looked like ambivalence– now it looks like deliberate undermining of MeeGo products inside and out. Maybe Elop enjoys fueling conspiracy buffs…

  17. latest news: Nokia N9 to Arrive in Sweden on September 23rd
    It is a long time to wait…

  18. what i want is a maemo with multitouch, pinch zoom, weighing less than 130 gms, time clock, better codec support, 64 gb, support for usb 3, better pixels, keypad, open os etc simple things. if i can get this by nokia its really good. otherwise ignore nokia and follow intel or so. nokia if you dont obey customers, give atleast source code to maemo community, we want to stay with maemo.

  19. Hi Randall,

    Nice post !!

    Nokia’s current portfolio and view of adopting platforms have confused many externally, however, in my view Nokia’s future resources allocation for the platforms will be highly dictated by the markets they will go after.

    1. WP7 will remain to be the primary platform for higher volume mid-to-high-tier (US$250 to US$450) mass-market smartphones targeted at developed (North America key market as Android bubble builds up) as well as emerging markets demanding maximum resource allocations.

    2. MeeGo/Maemo + Qt Nokia Apps ecosystem will be the differentiating platform on a high-end device (a testbed/experiment) touting different formfactors and enabling technologies to be launched in highly selected markets falling across premium-tier (US$450 above) smartphones segment

    3. Symbian (Symbain 3, Anna, xxx, S60,etc) will be flowing across all the price-segments for next 2 years again with global distribution aand will be phased out..

    4. S40 – the high-scale feature phones now intelligent and smart with touch/type/wifi/3G soon..

    I hope this clears up the air for those who are confused..

    In terms of design..Nokia is highly capable and N9 is really simple and attractive.


    • Thanks Neil.

      I know that’s the touted strategy, but the problem for myself and many others is that there have been statements and moves that conflict and even undermine that. In addition, changes have been made (especially where Symbian is involved) without clear, public acknowledgement of the changes and the reasoning behind them.

      In addition, how can MeeGo be seen as part of any Nokia platform? Everything Elop says works against that. As for Qt, there are more hints and allusions than outright obvious direction. Nokia NEEDS to be even clearer, and work better at avoiding contradicting itself. The stockholders (like myself) are making THAT clear.

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