Every object, every product, says something about the people behind it. In the old, pre-industrial days you would meet your carpenter, your blacksmith and your potter. People behind life’s object where more visible. Today, we don’t see the people behind the objects that define our lives. The creation of these objects requires the cooperation of hundreds of people, who might be dispersed all over the world. The people who make our objects are hidden behind the brand names of companies. Large companies.
In the N900′s case the brand name masking the creators is Nokia.
Nokia is probably one of the most influential companies in human history. They make absolutely every kind of phone imaginable, from the cheapest to the most expensive. They touch billions of lives. They come from a small country yet their ring tone is a recognized part of life’s sound track.
For all their size and reach, the company seems to have been absolutely struggling when it comes to capturing the innovation high ground. That ground has been taken by that ‘fruit company’ in California that has just left almost everyone in the dust, maybe not is terms of sales, but definitely in terms of ‘wow’.
Creating an iPhone killer is not even an option anymore, I would argue. Not with the iPhone’s 140,000 applications, which are 140,000 reasons for people who have an iPhone to stick to their platform.
I imagine that the people who are working on Nokia’s high-end N Series and Eseries phones, powered by the Symbian OS, as bunch of overwhelmed and disillusioned office workers. They are smart and capable, but simply stuck. Symbian is the dominant smartphone platform so ‘someone’ has to service it. They try to make it cool with a touch version. They tweak here and tweak there. They try to fix this and and that and, in the process, they probably feel more complexity and clunkiness creeping into their work. It feels like MacOS 9 felt like in its dying days. A dead end that just won’t die.
Then there are the people behind this new creature: The N900.
First, here is a guess: these guys are not even in the same building as the Symbian guys (I actually have no idea if this true, it just feels like that).
If you want to know wether to buy this phone for your mother, I can tell you right here: Don’t! Unless she spends her time on Sourceforge and needs X Terminal on her phone. You can now skip reading the rest of this post and go check out Facebook.
I mean, talk about identity! The N900 has one hell of a character. No feminine curves and shiny metal bits. No whimsical angels or cute graphics. It is black brick. Take it or leave it. OK?
The people behind it, you know those other guys in that other building, are probably a bunch of geeks with a sense of mission. Somehow, someone at Nokia stole a prototype from their lab and decided to slap a N Series logo and a number “900″ on it and actually released it to the mainstream. Those lab guys don’t even make phones. They make internet tablets. They have nothing to do with big old Symbian. They have their own open source based OS called Maemo (pronounce My Mo).
The most impressive thing about the N900 is that Nokia finally has something which doesn’t feel like a compromise. The last time they released something like that was with the N95, which was Symbian’s last hurrah before its strange encore as a ‘touch’ OS.
Compromises make more people sort of happy. The N900 will make some people extremely happy and probably anger a lot of ‘normal’ people. In my mind this is a GOOD thing.
The day Nokia’s PR agency finally delivered the N900 test unit to my office (I’ve been asking about it for months now!) I went home to set it up. You might think I am joking but I was physically cramped after doing that. Its new unfamiliar OS meant that I spent an unhealthy amount of time hunched in a weird position. I was in pain.
But over the two weeks I spent using the phone, this monster revealed itself to me. I was online on Skype with it without even launching a Skype app, with my phone contacts and Skype contacts on the same screen. I was making international phone calls on the cheap using my Gizmo SIP number in the same way I would make a normal call. I was easily answering my POP mail and Gmail on the phone. I was browsing the web heavily on a really good browser that supports Flash. I even had Firefox running on this phone.
The N900 is an unbelievable multitasker, as demonstrated in the video below. I was jumping between web browser, email client, phone app, calculator without a hitch. It was jumping between my different Wifi networks without asking me a million questions. It had all my missed calls, messages and IMs neatly waiting for me as yellow cards, placed among other card representing open apps and tasks.
It has 4 infinitely customizable home screens. I used one for frequent contacts. One for calendar, weather and Facebook widget. Another one for bookmakrs. And so on and so forth.
When I had to repack the the phone and give it back so that another blogger can review it, I was truly distressed.
Look. I am not a professional phone reviewer. I have never used Android or Palms WebOS. I never lived with an iPhone beyond using my wife’s at home sometimes. If you want to read full N900 reviews go to Engadget or something. What I am concerned with is Nokia’s move into new territory with Maemo.
As a first step into this new territory the N900 first disoriented me, then really impressed me.
The guys at Nokia’s Maemo division have changed the game. The N900 does not pretend to be an iPhone killer. It is its own, powerful, geeky, black brick thing.
People keep asking me.. “but Ahmad, you are such an Apple evangelist. Why don’t you have an iPhone yet?”. My answer is always: I need a better camera, I really like Nokia’s mapping features (now totally free too). I can’t say I am happy with my current N97mini (another test unit from Nokia BTW). But I am sticking with it for the moment.
But my conclusion is: there is room in the world for Maemo phones. And I might eventually get one.
Out of the box it is a powerful communication and media device. No, it doesn’t have 140,000 apps. But the open source community of geeks might even make it more useful.
With such a strong identity and posture, the N900 and whatever comes next will stand its ground. Let’s just hope Nokia leaves the Maemo people undiluted and uncompromised.