Thursday, June 23, 2011

Nokia N9: A Turning Point

On June 21, 2011 Nokia CEO Stephen Elop announced the first Nokia device to run on the mysterious MeeGo operating system. Before this announcement, there was only one device that ran a version of MeeGo - the N900, originally the company's Maemo 5 device, that in the eyes of many, is a powerful portable computer that just happens to have mobile phone functionality.

The issue with the timeline of the N900 to the N9 is that the N900 was released in early 2009. The N9 may not be released until Q4 in most markets, and availability outside of Europe is still uncertain. The N900 was suppose to be a stepping stone to a  great ecosystem in Maemo. In the months following the N900 release, Maemo was merged with Moblin, forming MeeGo, which brought Nokia and Intel together - promising to say the least. Nokia lacked visibility in the regions between the Pacific and Atlantic Ocean (North America) as a smartphone powerhouse, so having backing from a very respectable name (Intel) might have been all Nokia needed.

Then the house of cards fell. Nokia ousted a lot of officers, which led to others leaving, resigning, retiring, and I think it came at the right time to transition to new horizons, but the wrong time for the MeeGo platform to stand a chance. MeeGo was a big project that Nokia simply could not afford to keep as the platform of choice going forward. Considering Elop's background with Microsoft, I thought the choice to pair with Windows Phone 7 was very logical, and considering the growth of WP7 and name recognition in the North American market, I think it was the best choice.

Google. Apple. Two of the biggest companies in North America both have operating systems they back for mobile phones. Nokia, a Finnish company, does not give North America the confidence in a Nokia-built operating system, because they are thought of as a phone maker, not software. Internationally, Nokia is still the biggest phone (smart and feature) in terms of market share, and I think Nokia will continue to dominate the non-smartphone market because they have been doing it for so long. I think they have evolved their feature phones in a great way, and S40 is the best OS I've ever used in terms of ease of use paired with functionality.

Enter the N9. Elop called it a "market disruption device" that will likely see Nokia support fall off near the end of 2012 (and not because of December 12, 2012). Let me start off with the positives I see in the N9:
  • Great design - the curvature of the front and back combined with the unibody shell and simplistic lines reminds me that chrome, metal, etching, and over-use of logos are not necessary to produce a beautiful product. This may be what gets Nokia WP7 phones into the hands of the populous.
  • Functional and gorgeous user-interface - the idea of a "circular-based" user interface reminds me why I believe Nokia can still do a lot of work and it be spectacular. The circular icons add a sense of continuity and uniformity. The circular home screens are great because there are no "apps" to open or button-combinations to press to get to three items I personally use the most; applications I have, applications I am running, and events I want to be notified of. While having a button-less interface is new to me, it could possibly be a trend that other operating systems borrow. 
  • Gigahertz and Gigabytes - Nokia has prided itself of being conservative with the under-the-hood specs. Although there are still nay-sayers who whine "these are last year specs" Nokia is still king of making the most of the least amount or processing power and memory capacity. Specs do nothing for me, because the Intel Core 2 Duo in my Lenovo laptop doesn't do squat if the operating system doesn't use it properly. 
  • The best digital camera - yes, better than the stand-alone digital cameras because the N9 is my camera and phone. The Carl Zeiss line of lenses that Nokia has used are spectacular. The 12mp shooter on my N8 still amazes me to this day, because I can take respectable photographs that I feel proud to share on Twitter and Facebook. The 8mp shooter on the N9 with wide-angle lens and f/2.2 aperture is very good specs for a phone, and I imagine there will be very little difference in the N8 and N9 photographs.
Now, let me lash out against the decisions behind the N9, because although I am a Nokian for life, I have to express my concerns. Firstly, what took so long? I was close to getting a N900, although I am on AT&T, and I decided to wait until the next big Maemo device. Two and a half years later, it was announced. Also, there is not even a decision of the availability of the N9:

Although the likelihood of it not coming to the States is slim, the fact there is not a decision bothers me. I think Nokia's fence-straddling in the North American market has killed its branding. I can name one device that is currently being offered by Nokia to US carriers that was released in the past 6 months - the Astound (C7) on T-Mobile. One device. One. Guess how many Samsung has just on AT&T? Five. Two WP7, two Android, and one WinMo. Plus the plethora of feature phones. I just can't comprehend the lack of North American carrier support, not for the sake of myself, but for the sake of Nokia's North American market, which is essentially non-existent.

Nokia may be planning a full-on assault on North America with the WP7 devices to come, and I anticipate success, because Nokia (great phones) + Microsoft (hey, it's Microsoft!) is likely to equal success. I just wish Nokia had room for MeeGo to continue to be their baby.

Unless the forthcoming WP7 device from Nokia blows my mind, I don't see not buying the N9, granted it makes it to Nokia USA. If Nokia is going to abandon MeeGo, then I want to be a part of keeping the OS alive in being a developer and contributor. So, the Nokia N9 is a turning point in three ways:

  1. It has geared up my motivation to become a mobile developer, be it application or operating system improvements, I want to coddle the heart of the beast as long as I am able.
  2. Nokia has certainly turned away from its most loyal patrons by leaving the MeeGo ecosystem out on the doorstep and hopes someone adopts. Nokia is still dear to my heart, but they have mishandled the MeeGo development and it could damage the credibility of their brand to loyalists going forward.
  3. Nokia is ready to take on WP7 full strength. They are ready to reclaim world dominance, by getting rid of the dead weight of Symbian (I still love you) and MeeGo, they are surely more streamlined to ride the WP7 train. The question is, how far will this train go?
Nokia can be compared to the rattled American car companies - the market is pulled out from under their feet by Toyota and Nissan (Apple and Android), the economy blows up in their face (turnover of officers) and the comeback plan to address the changing economy (drop Symbian, go WP7).

Will Nokia rally?

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