April 11, 2010

Nokia N900 Review

Today, Nokia stands at a fascinating fork in the road. Let's consider the facts: first, and most unavoidably, the company is the largest manufacturer of cellphones in the world by a truly sobering margin. At every end of the spectrum, in every market segment, Nokia is successfully pushing phones -- from the highest of the high-end (see Vertu) to the lowest of the low (the ubiquitous 1100 series, which as far as we can tell, remains the best selling phone in history). The kind of stark dominance Nokia has built over its competition certainly isn't toppled overnight, but what might be the company's biggest asset has turned out to be its biggest problem, too: S60. In the past eight years, Nokia's bread-and-butter smartphone platform has gone from a pioneer, to a staple, to an industry senior citizen while upstarts like Google and Apple (along with a born-again Palm) have come from practically zero to hijack much of the vast mindshare Espoo once enjoyed.

Of course, mindshare doesn't pay the bills, but in a business dominated by fickle consumerism perhaps more than any other, mindshare foreshadows market share -- it's a leading indicator. Put simply, there are too many bright minds with brilliant ideas trying to get a piece of the wireless pie for even a goliath like Nokia to rest on its laurels for years on end. Yet, until just very recently, it seemed content to do just that, slipping out incremental tweaks to S60 on refined hardware while half-heartedly throwing a bone to the "the future is touch!" crowd by introducing S60 5th Edition alongside forgettable devices like the 5800 XpressMusic and N97. A victim of its own success, the company that had helped define the modern smartphone seemed either unwilling or unable to redefine it.

Not all is lost, though. As S60 has continued to pay the bills and produce modern, lustworthy devices like the E71 and E72, the open, Linux-based Maemo project has quietly been incubating in the company's labs for over four years. What began as a geeky science experiment (a "hobby" in Steve Jobs parlance) on the Nokia 770 tablet back in 2005 matured through several iterations -- even producing the first broadly-available WiMAX MID -- until it finally made the inevitable leap into smartphone territory late last year with the announcement of the N900. On the surface, a migration to Maemo seems to make sense for Nokia's long-term smartphone strategy; after all, it's years younger than S60 and its ancestry, it's visually attractive in all the ways S60 is not, and it was built with an open philosophy from the ground up, fostering a geeky, close-knit community of hackers and devs from day one. Thing is, Nokia's been absolutely emphatic with us -- Maemo's intended for handheld computers (read: MIDs) with voice capability, while S60 continues to be the choice for purebred smartphones.

So, back to that fork in the road we'd mentioned. In one direction lies that current strategy Nokia is trumpeting -- continue to refine S60 through future Symbian revisions (with the help of the Symbian Foundation) and keep pumping out pure-profit smartphones in the low to midrange while sprinkling the upper end of the market with a Maemo device here and there. In the long term, though, running two platforms threatens to dilute Nokia's resources, cloud its focus, and confuse consumers, which leads us to the other direction in the fork: break clean from Symbian, develop Maemo into a refined, powerhouse smartphone platform, and push it throughout the range.

Our goal here is to test the N900, of course, but fundamentally, that's the question we tried to keep in the backs of our minds for this review: could Maemo ultimately become the platform of Nokia's future? Let's dig in.

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