What the N900 Means to Nokia

n900Nokia (s nok) is hoping to recapture some of its lost glory in the smartphone space with the N900, the flagship device that began shipping today. The long-awaited handset runs Nokia’s new Maemo 5 operating system and boasts some pretty impressive features, including 32GB on onboard memory, multitasking functionality, and a 5-megapixel camera with video capability.

While the N900 may not be the iPhone-killer Nokia would love to produce — as Om opined last month — it has received positive reviews, thanks largely to Maemo 5’s web browser. Maemo-based Internet tablets have fared poorly in the U.S., but with Symbian gathering dust — and losing customers — Maemo increasingly appears to be Nokia’s best hope for catching up to its rivals in the superphone era. As Fjord’s Christian Lindholm told Om last week (see the clip below), a typical mobile operating system has a shelf life of about 10 years, and building a mobile OS from scratch is a daunting task. If Nokia can find much of an audience with its N900 and Maemo 5, it may be a first step in reversing its fortunes.

While its Symbian platform remains atop the smartphone space in terms of market share, Nokia is in desperate need of a high-end, web-friendly handset that can compete with the iPhone. The manufacturer continues to lose ground in the vital U.S. market and has watched its dominance erode in its home market of Western Europe as Apple (s aapl), Research In Motion (s rimm) and others close the gap. And Nokia will surely lose substantial ground to Android in the next few months as Google’s (s goog) mobile OS gains traction in North America and Europe. The Finnish manufacturer must continue to support its massive base of Symbian customers, of course, but Nokia’s best hope for the long-term appears to be Maemo 5.