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 freenode.net 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. maemo.org 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.
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!