The most important announcement at last week’s Nokia World 09 show was the arrival of Maemo 5, the company’s new smartphone software, together with the N900 – the first device using it.
Maemo 5 and the N900
The announcements have been widely covered in the press, but it’s worth reflecting on the relevance of them to Nokia and the market.
Maemo 5 is the next evolution of the company’s Linux operating system, used in earlier products such as the N800 and N810. It has been fermenting quietly within Nokia for about 5 years and the improvements in the latest version are mainly aimed at bringing a desktop computing experience onto a mobile device.
This fits the aspiration of the top end of Nokia’s product range, which is to push mobile devices up into the computing space. Nokia’s Windows 7 based Booklet 3G laptop / netbook, which was also announced for Nokia World, is a complementary step.
The main upgrades to Maemo for this version are in the areas of speed, performance, PC-style multi-tasking where you leave the apps running all the time, a brand new user interface (UI), a Mozilla based browser, integration of VoIP into the operating system, adding support for Microsoft Exchange and designing in renewability at all layers of the software to enable a healthy roadmap.
When announcing Maemo 5 Anssi Vanjoki, EVP of Nokia’s Markets Unit, said that Nokia had always envisaged 5 steps to achieving the ideal new software platform, and that this is step 4 of those. That does not mean that the current version is just work-in-progress, more that there is already work going on for the next release, which will presumably incorporate greater integration with the Qt framework, HD media and other goodies.
With the release of Maemo 5 came the launch of the N900, the first device to use the software. This is a slightly smaller, but higher spec version of earlier tablet devices with cellular connectivity built in for the first time.
The N900 was designed to fit the features of the software and has been welcomed for its speed, memory, screen, improved keyboard, gaming abilities, range of media formats supported plus better handling of video. However, it has also been criticised for its blocky shape and general ugliness, with one person unkindly describing it as a “stepping stone”.
The core applications on the device (contacts, messaging etc) are all new for the N900 and are designed around web use cases. For example the contacts book shows VoIP addresses next to phone numbers, as well as social network links.
In addition there are 20 other applications available for it at launch including Ovi Maps, Skype and others. There is a lot of work going on porting Linux applications from earlier Nokia devices and desktop Linux to the N900, so the range of applications will rise quickly. Initially these will be available through a special site – Maemo Select – but we can anticipate that the Ovi Store will carry them soon.
For Nokia the release of Maemo 5 is a logical next step. It has not had a major software platform release for about 8 years since Series 60 on top of Symbian, and there is a clear need for a new platform that is designed from the outset to work with the web.
From a short time of testing the N900 at Nokia World, I think the software looks very capable and introduces a number of interesting new ways of doing things.
The N900 is of secondary importance to the software – though of course you need devices to ship the software. But we should think of the N900 as only the first attempt to exploit Maemo 5.
Actually, although it is not beautiful, the N900 feels much nicer to use than the N97 and starts to show what Nokia is capable of at this level. It is almost what the N97 should have been.
One key task for Nokia will be to turn the applications side into a consumer proposition. For earlier versions the apps were easily available and well organised but very geeky, with names like “gstmjpg” and “irtrans-irserver”. Nokia will need to make it as easy and user-friendly as on the Apple App Store to get applications, but without alienating the Linux community who have contributed such a lot to the development path.
Another key task will be to ensure that the applications are computing-grade and really serve the high end, rather than simply parroting what’s currently available in Symbian / S60 and constraining the appeal of the device by bringing historic Nokia smartphone-think to it. So, for example, it needs a proper office suite, a high quality RSS reader and high-grade PIM applications.
Both of these tasks are really important for the market’s development since consumer users have so far rejected the relative unknowns of Linux on netbooks in favour of the tried and trusted Windows, with all the applications and file format compatibility that comes with it.
Nokia intended the N900 to appeal to Tech Enthusiasts – one step out from the Geek group who bought the N800/810, but not mass market. However, the interest this device has generated suggests that it could appeal much more widely, especially if there is a good range of useful apps available in an easy way. We can expect to see it ranged and subsidised by a number of carriers.
The N900 is also likely to play a useful role in helping Nokia re-build its brand in the US.
And what about Symbian?
There has been a lot of poor quality journalism in the last month about how Maemo will quickly be the death of Symbian. This is based on the perceived weakness of Symbian in serving high-end devices.
We should remember that Symbian in its new organisational form incorporates both the original Symbian operating system and Nokia’s Series 60 UI and runtime layer.
Although the original OS is now old, actually it is highly capable and it is good at running on devices which do not have a high spec processor and Gb of working memory. This makes it a sensible choice for smartphones lower down the range.
As far as I can tell most of the major weaknesses in the current Symbian come from Series 60, especially the touch UI which was a huge missed opportunity that set Nokia back at least 2 years. Nokia is fully aware of this and is sick of hearing about it. As I understand it there is a proposal in the Symbian system for a major overhaul to parts of S60 which, if approved, could appear in release 4, due in around a year’s time.
So, yes, that gives Nokia a problem in that it must get through the next 12 months making the best of a poor UI in its top-end Symbian smartphones (or sell the N900 to those buyers). But it still has a strong platform for serving lower smartphone price points, and for giving its competitors a hard time at those levels. The newly launched 5230 at a recommended price of €127 is a great example of what can now be done.
And this means that Symbian is a real growth story, with much higher volumes likely over the coming 2-3 years than ever before.