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With new Nokia N9, is MeeGo a viable backup plan?

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Nokia(s nok) unveiled its newest phone Tuesday, but it isn’t a Windows Phone 7 (s msft) device. The new Nokia N9 uses the MeeGo operating system. Nokia originally intended for MeeGo to succeed its aging Symbian OS, but with Nokia adopting Windows Phone 7 as its primary platform, MeeGo was relegated to “experimental” status. That experiment could yet prove to be a viable backup plan judging from early impressions of the new smartphone.

Nokia’s challenge has never been with its handset hardware. The N9 continues a tradition of smart industrial design paired with capable components. A 3.9-inch, curved Gorilla Glass display dominates the phone’s front face, which is buttonless. A penta-band radio ensures support for voice and mobile broadband data on many global networks, while an NFC chip allows for the possibility of simple device pairing and wireless payments. The camera specifications are typical high-end Nokia: An 8-megapixel sensor with Carl Zeiss optics, dual-LED flash and wide aperture (f/2.2) allowing for excellent low light use. A PDF with the full specs can be found here.

Software, particularly the user interface, was the bigger issue for Nokia. Symbian went from market leader to has-been after 2007 when Apple(s aapl) debuted the touch-friendly iOS platform, which was followed by a number of other more modern operating systems: Google Android(s goog) and Palm’s webOS(s hpq) come to mind. Nokia attempted to enable touch on Symbian with a number of handsets, but a key difference stands out. While others designed and built a platform specifically tailored to touch, Nokia tried to graft touch controls onto an existing user interface. MeeGo, however, is designed for touch, and could have potentially stemmed Nokia’s losses if only it had arrived sooner.

Regardless of the bad timing, MeeGo is finally here, although just for one handset, and that device has no official price, nor a release date just yet. Both phone and OS show promise, at least at this early stage of first impressions. The device unlocks with a simple double-tap of the display, while a full screen swipe returns the user to the home area from any running application. The main interface is a trio of screens in a carousel: one for application organization; one for social networking feeds, events and notifications; and a third that shows small previews of currently running apps that you can switch between.

That sounds good, but I’d still like to go hands-on with the device. I initially had high hopes for the Nokia N8 sporting revamped Symbian software, as it too had favorable first impressions, but it left me wanting more after daily usage.

Although Nokia has deemed MeeGo an experiment, there’s a chance it could become more than that. The situation reminds me of a similar Samsung strategy. Samsung is set to become the top seller of smartphones through a series of strategies, but the effort revolves around using a popular handset platform. The company adopted Android (s goog) as its main OS, but has also had its own little experiment called Bada: Samsung’s in-house developed mobile platform. It’s doing relatively well, with estimates that it will be powering 3.5 million handsets in the first quarter of this year.

Simply put: Samsung has built market share and expertise by selling well-designed Google Android phones while also building its own software platform in the background. If MeeGo is as capable as it looks, it’s possible Nokia could replicate Samsung’s strategy by using Microsoft Windows Phone 7 to buy the time MeeGo needs to grow. MeeGo will need more than fancy hardware and smart software, of course. It will need a wide variety of applications in the ecosystem, given our growing addiction to apps. MeeGo’s answer for that is Qt, a cross-platform framework that enables developers to easily run their software on a wide range of devices.

Had MeeGo panned out as an earlier response to the 2007 iPhone launch, Nokia may well not have been in the position it’s in today: a recent 13-year low in stock value and a sinking smartphone market share. At this point, the company has linked its immediate future to that of Microsoft, for better or for worse. But if that coupling ends in divorce, MeeGo could be waiting in the wings for a second date with smartphone destiny.

8 Responses to “With new Nokia N9, is MeeGo a viable backup plan?”


  2. sandman

    the very same site and blogger bashed meego efforts. you guys said there is no need of another OS when i mentioned meego is a true open source OS(unlike android).

    look at the mess with android now, too many variants, incompatibilities e.t.c.

    meego/linux are way to go if you need innovation..

  3. “If MeeGo is as capable as it looks, it’s possible Nokia could replicate Samsung’s strategy by using Microsoft Windows Phone 7 to buy the time MeeGo needs to grow”

    Very much agreed.

    It is widely believed that there can only be three mainstream smartphone ecosystems, in addition to niche platforms such as RIM, and with Android and Apple IOS occupying two of those positions the race to be the third depends massively on the perception of momentum.

    Nokia want to be (a part of) that third platform and they didn’t have confidence that MeeGo could take them there.

    But even if adopting Win7 mobile for smartphones was a ‘necessary’ choice for Nokia, what does it mean for open platforms like Meego whose competitive advantage is enhanced by its cross-platform development environment?

    On the surface it looks pretty bad:

    1. MeeGo is no longer a smartphone platform, it has now become a smartphone ‘project’ which will limit itself a single 2011 release before morphing into R&D for future concepts. What this means is that stage 5 of 5 will probably not attract much commercial developer interest, nor see investment in services expected of a tier one device.

    2. QT will not be offered as a development platform for Nokia Win7 phones, that will be in the hands of Microsoft, effectively killing Nokia’s ambition to see QT as the premier mobile development platform. What this means is that as far as Nokia is concerned QT has very little utility as a strategic asset and so investment will plummet.

    3. Microsoft Marketplace will replace Ovi-Store as the store for applications on Nokia Win7 devices, and this is unlikely to be made available to MeeGo devices. This may not matter quite as much as it initially appears however as an entirely separate app-store ecosystem has grown up around Nokia/MeeGo in the form of Project Bretzn.

    This is in no way a desirable outcome as far as this blog is concerned, for there is no dream of a mainstream open platform any longer, but perhaps it will survive as a niche platform?

    Nokia currently spends nearly three times as much on R&D as its peers. So when we see that investment by Nokia will decline by a third, and investment in MeeGo will be squeezed to less than half of what it was, perhaps we need a little perspective.

    MeeGo alone will probably see an annual investment of circa $200 million. If we likewise contrast that to the circa $800 million to be invested in “Windows Phone” then we can guess that “MeeGo” phones will attract as much as one fifth of the investment that Nokia will put into “Mobile Phones – Platforms” as well as “Services” which amounts to circa $350 million per year. That said, $350 million would be the upper ceiling given that MeeGo is now a ‘project’ rather than a platform, so lets halve that figure and call it $175 million a year in platforms and services.

    So, in a like-for-like comparison with competitors, a total investment of around $400 million dollars a year doesn’t appear too desperate, provided one understands that it is being kept as a niche platform and not promoted as a mainstream competitor to Android and Apples IOS.

    It should also be noted that Nokia show Win7 as replacing the Symbian platform which occupies the mid-to-high end of the companies offering, a total that represents less than 60% of Nokia’s projected future sales.

    Nokia were quite happy to show the death of Symbian in graphic format, the same would be true for Meego, but they didn’t.

  4. Stuart

    During the presentation of the N9 it was highlighted that it was a Qt phone more than it was a MeeGo phone. Qt is Nokia’s platform of choice and it will be what new S40 phones development will be done in. Symbian Qt was to provide lots of apps for the N9. S40 will provide so many more. S40 is targeted to reach the next BILLION so creating those localized apps that are highly useful give the phone an even longer life. It all depends if Nokia will use MeeGo for it’s future disruption and try new things. If they design a phone that is worth buying without carrier subsidies then they will have something that is really innovative.

  5. Unfortunately, no matter how glitzy and glamorous the N9 may be, it’s essentially DOA, even before Nokia can announce a ship date.

    Nokia has always released Maemo/Meego powered devices that ignited passions and imagination – the N810, N900, and now the N9. All were heralded – the N810 had a WiMAX variant before Sprint even LAUNCHED WiMAX – and all have/will be ignored quickly by the Mothership.

    The N900 hadn’t been out very long at all before Nokia announced that Maemo was no more and that MeeGo was the new ‘it’. This wasn’t long after a HUGE marketing campaign highlighting Maemo 5 (and teasing Maemo 6 all the while).

    Unfortunately, Meego/Maemo has always been the red-headed stepchild of Nokia. At the risk of insulting a large number of developers (I’ve already pissed them off a few times before), the developer community around Maemo/MeeGo sucks, too.

    From my experience, while they’re EXTREMELY talented developers, they have zero interest in creating a usable/beautiful user experience. Don’t believe me? Go pick up an N900 and try to check out some of the 3rd party apps. They’re usually extremely functional but ugly as sin, with no consistency and no effort placed on aesthetics.

    It’s something Nokia has never concerned itself with, and I don’t imagine QT will change that.

    Also keep in mind that it was less than 6 months ago that Nokia announced its partnership with Microsoft on Windows Phone, and part of that announcement was that QT would NOT be coming to Windows Phone.

    There’s no doubt – the hardware refinements and some of the software innovations of the N9 are impressive, and definitely set it apart from the competition in a few ways. However, Nokia has already said that this would be the last MeeGo phone – which means any apps will only be created for a VERY limited userbase.

    With iOS, Android, and even (believe it or not) Windows Phone adding users by the month, there’s absolutely zero motivation for developers to pay any attention to MeeGo.

    The only thing that’s impressive about the N9 is that it shows off a teaser of the types of Windows Phone devices we can expect to see from Nokia, hopefully later this year.

    • lolmobilephoneexpert

      Did you forget to mention that all of those third party apps were written by hobbyist developers in their spare time and not a paid development team?

      Sorry if they didn’t add beautifully round corners to the buttons and pick a better font, or even do a user survey to pick a background color…but then again, they were probably busy with their job trying to put food on the table as well as write that program for the community that you just pooped all over.

      • Now, now, lolmobilephoneexpert, I don’t know what your stake in Maemo was, but Ricky is generally correct and wasn’t taking pot shots at developers. Maemo had a lot of promise, but didn’t have the support of the company. Developers knew this, and very few devoted their time to creating applications for a system for which they could see the hand writing on the wall. Instead, enthusiasts and hobbyists who loved the device created the applications that they needed, but the application ecosystem really just didn’t develop; there was no money to be made.

        I considered jumping on board after my experience using the N800, but lack of Java support, and a rather opaque developer system really made me question whether that was a good decision. When they announced that upcoming phones were going to drop Maemo for MeeGo and not provide backward compatibility, that decided it for me, and I went looking elsewhere. Their announcement that new phones are adopting WM7 should send the same chilling message to developers currently considering whether to create applications for MeeGo.

        Nokia really dropped the ball on this, and had they pushed Maemo on more phones and provided a path to provide backward compatibility, they would have enough market share, loyal developers, and an application store with enough clout to make a difference.

        The author made it sound like MeeGo just fell out of the sky, and I’m glad for Ricky’s comments which put it into context. Ricky’s also right that MeeGo is DOA.

      • He’s not picking only on the developers, but also Nokia, which sat for a few years without publishing a single guidance note on UI conventions. It was only late in the N900 cycle that Nokia tried to publish guidelines, mid-GTK/QT transition, and by that time it was too late. A thousand disparate interfaces had blossomed and it was too late to ask the developers who had worked for free to develop to a standard.

        I don’t blame developers for that – though I may have cursed a few when things didn’t behave as they should have; I blame Nokia for not having thought a new platform launch through, and botching the release. It was obvious to even casual observers of technology like myself that Nokia had not thought everything through.

        (Btw, Ricky is formerly Symbian-Guru, if there’s one person who might just be entitled to be bitter about all those craptastic Nokia phones he bought … Ricky would be it :P)