First MeeGo Smartphone Might Not Appear Until June, 2011?

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Nokia has long said its first MeeGo device would be a “2011 event,” and while many have understood that device to be a high-end smartphone, it’s looking more likely that a MeeGo tablet or netbook will come first. Steve Paine of UMPC Portal attended last week’s MeeGo Conference in Dublin, and today shares thoughts on the MeeGo timeline as it pertains to when different gadgets running Nokia’s latest mobile platform will appear. If Paine is correct, Nokia’s first MeeGo handset will arrive roughly around June, 2011: the very time Apple’s yearly refresh should deliver a fifth-generation iPhone.

MeeGo is an interesting beast in that this February, it became a mashup of two open-source, Linux efforts: Intel’s Moblin Project and Nokia’s Maemo platform, most recently used to power Nokia’s N900 handset. Both companies need MeeGo, but for different reasons. With its Atom chip, Intel is trying to avoid getting shut out of the fast-growing smartphone and tablet market, currently owned by processors based on the ARM architecture. However, Intel has no mobile platform to leverage for its chips; hence, the creation of Moblin in 2009.

Nokia has a platform for smartphones in Symbian, but the S60 interface for the operating system was shown as more utilitarian than user-friendly once Apple’s iOS platform arrived in 2007. From that point on, Nokia continued to sell the highest number of smartphones, but Apple has shown a much faster overall smartphone sales growth rate; as of September, Apple iPhone sales grew 90.5 percent in the prior year while Nokia’s smartphones managed a paltry 1.8 percent increase in the same time period.

As a result, it only took four years for Apple to become no. 4 in global smartphone sales. Although Google doesn’t sell smartphones directly, it’s nearing Nokia in terms of smartphones sold on its Android platform. Nokia recently revamped its Symbian operating system for new smartphones, but has consistently said MeeGo is the platform for even higher-end devices, which brings us back to the timeline from the MeeGo Conference.

MeeGo is currently at version 1.1, with new releases slated each six months. While some equipment makers can and have cobbled together a product based on MeeGo, the platform surely isn’t optimized yet to sell a product in any significant numbers. The German-made WeTab is a perfect example: the Intel Atom-powered tablet runs on a customized version of MeeGo, but due to the immature platform, isn’t yet considered a serious competitor to Apple’s iPad. Paine alludes to credible devices after version 1.2 of MeeGo, expected in April of 2011.

While that doesn’t sound too far off, the next evolution of a brand-new mobile platform in April doesn’t mean consumer devices will appear that same month. I agree with Paine when he says it will take a few months more to optimize the platform and ecosystem and it wouldn’t surprise me if Nokia first outs a MeeGo tablet to gain a foothold in that relatively young market:

The customisation, optimisation and branding process takes months and for a class leading product, could easily take 6 months. Adding in codecs, optimising and branding the content stores, optismising the base applications, checking security, spicing up the interface, writing the drivers and testing is a 6 month to 1 year project. Lets assume that with 1.1, the teams were able to start the process of building a product around MeeGo. In April they will get the features needed to finalise the product and then, along with the integration of an application store, you’ve got another 2-4 months of work ahead. The first competitive products, driven by investment from the core partners, will only hit the market in June 2011 at the earliest.

If true, such a timeline presents a continued challenge to both Nokia and Intel. The longer it takes Intel to keep pushing down the power requirements for its Atom chips, more smartphones and tablets running ARM chips will be sold. Next year’s ARM chips will put even more pressure on Intel, thanks to multiple cores and significant performance boosts.

MeeGo can run on the ARM architecture, but of course, that won’t help Intel at all in the mobile space where they appear doomed to fail, says Om. And each week without a MeeGo smartphone from Nokia allows more iPhones, BlackBerry devices, Android devices and yes, Symbian devices too, to be sold. It may appear that companies don’t care about the market share their mobile devices have, but along with programming tools and mature app stores, device sales command the attention and mindset of developers.

Although the situation may appear dire for both Nokia and Intel, I’m not counting either out just yet, although I like Nokia’s chances better than Intel’s. Unlike Google Android which is composed of both open-source Linux and Google’s Dalvik virtual machine and apps, MeeGo has potential as a true open-source product for consumers that want greater control over their device. And Nokia is moving developers to its Qt cross-platform framework, which will greatly reduce the time it takes to produce an application that can run on Symbian smartphones as well as MeeGo handsets, tablets and computers: up to 50 percent less time, according to some developers.

MeeGo has the right attributes for potential success, but Nokia and Intel both have to deliver a compelling flagship product the first time around in order to make headway against the newest and more mature iOS and Android devices that are capturing consumer dollars and smartphone profits.

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