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

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.