A First Look At The Nokia N9: This Is Not A Dead End

Nokia N9

Before it has even hit the market, the N9 from Nokia (NYSE: NOK), its first Meego-based device, has caused almost as much excitement as it has frustration — excitement for all the promise that Nokia seems finally to have delivered on, and frustration for executing on it just as it prepares to move to another new platform altogether, Microsoft’s Windows Phone OS. Today I got a firsthand chance to see if the N9 lives up to the hype, and to ask Nokia folks why this is not simply a ship built in a bottle, but something that can, paraphrasing CEO Stephen Elop, help turn around the Nokia supertanker.

The device: The N9, I should say first off, is really slick in the flesh — simple and streamlined — and seems to work just as smoothly on the inside, with a very responsive touchscreen and very fluid graphics. As an iPhone user, I found the N9’s interface intuitive and very easy to get to grips with. Less so how you are apparently meant to use the N9: the spokesperson demonstrating basic tasks to me insisted I perform everything with one hand, and mainly my thumb, to get into the spirit of the device. I found that a little more difficult, especially when it came to typing.

As you’ve likely heard, there are three screens that a user has to interface with the phone, all reached via a cross-screen swiping action: the main window that contains apps and icons to take the user to other functions (like using the phone); a view of all a user’s open programs; and a task and notification viewer. The first of these has a vertical scrolling navigation, and although the prototypes had all the icons running continuously — which meant a lot of vertical scrolling — apparently they can be organized into folders to minimize some of that.

There was little in the way of time lags between tasks, even when you had several apps and other functions running simultaneously on the device. But there were some delays, as in the case of map renderings. In that instance, the person demonstrating blamed mobile reception in Nokia’s building. Internet browsing was also fairly smooth. Although it’s not clear yet whether these devices will fully support Flash at launch, Mark Squires, a spokesperson for Nokia, noted that it was likely, given the support on other Linux platforms and Nokia’s support of Flash in its Symbian devices.

Not a dead end: The N9 is viewed by some as a dead end because of Nokia’s decision to put the bulk of its attention on Windows Phone in the future, but from the sounds of it, we will likely see echoes of the N9 and the “Nokia stamp” coming up in future Windows products.

Mark Squires, PR manager for Nokia, explained: “We did the alliance after they announced Mango and we’ve jumped on a moving bus. That means the majority of early products will be based on that.” Think here, for example, of the fact that early devices are likely to still feature navigation keys. “However, as we move forward, you will see more of that ‘Nokia stamp’ [as I called it] in those future devices. People right now can only see pieces of the puzzle, they can’t see the whole picture.”

And he also emphasized that the N9 “is the only Meego device this year.” In other words, Squires wouldn’t flat-out say that this would be the only Meego device, ever. Does that mean there could be more beyond 2011? I suspect we’ll have to see how this one sells first.

Apps. The majority of apps — if not all the apps — on the device I played with were created by Nokia itself. There’s been no word yet on what developers will be porting apps to the Meego platform and whether it will launch with any “hero” apps. Squires claims that it will be a simple task to port Symbian apps, and others, to Meego. “Most Symbian developers are already working on the Qt platform,” he said. No comment on whether Android apps will be usable on the N9.

Operators/prices: No word on what operators will be offering the N9 first, and no news on prices, either. The N9s that we saw today happened to have T-Mobile micro SIMs in them, but I was assured that these have no bearing on which operator would be first to get the device.

Despite the tight lips from Nokia on what might happen in big markets like the UK or the U.S., we have had some early news on operators: Three in Sweden announced last week that they would start selling the N9 on September 23; other operators in that market are expected to follow suit.

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