iPads, Nexus One and the N900

So, I’ve had my N900 for a little over a month now. I’ve written programs for it, I’ve streamed video on it, I’ve used it as an MP3 player to listen to music as well as to books on tape. I’ve used the PDF viewer for reading court briefings and maps of local parks. I used it as a tape recorder, an HDR camera, a game console, and even used it from time to time to send and receive text messages or make phone calls.

I’ve also followed closely discussions in the Maemo developers world about problems with the maemo and Nokia servers, issues about documentation, testing, and the community as a whole. I’ve talked about these issues with friends of mine in the open source industry. During this time, I’ve also watched the launch of Nexus One and of the iPad.

Through all of this, I’ve wondered if the N900, Maemo, and Nokia have what it takes to remain relevant in the rapidly changing world of Internet enabled mobile devices. In spite of everything I love about the N900, I still have significant doubts.

As a piece of hardware, the N900 is wonderful. There are minor things that might make it better. The keyboard could be a little better. The front camera isn’t very good. I wish it had more CPU power and more RAM, but then again, I’d wish that on any device I have.

I also really like the operating system and the applications. Yet that is looking at it from a geek’s perspective. I spend more time at a command line than I do tapping on any icons. For my non-geeky friends, I really can’t say how well the interface compares. My sense is that Android or iPhone may be better for some of them.

Yet it is apps that is the big issue. I think my experiment with HDR photography illustrated this quite nicely. I spent a bit of time mucking around to be able to do some really cool HDR photography. When I was done, I went to see if anyone was doing HDR photography on the iPhone. Yup, there’s an app for that.

As I talked with a friend at Red Hat about the N900, he asked if the key selling point is that the OS is Linux, or that it is Open Source. It is an important question. Some people like Linux based machines for their reliability. The open source aspect, while it contributes to reliability, in and of itself doesn’t really matter to these people. To a certain extent, it would make sense that people want highly reliable cell phones and so a Linux based cell phone may be very appealing.

The advantage of Open Source, however, is different. It is about sharing how the programs work. This sharing, and the ability to more easily port applications from one environment to another can give open source developers a great advantage, and I’ve seen some of that in some sharing of knowledge that has taken place within the N900 developer community.

Yet there are plenty of problems with this. As much as some people would like everything to be open source, even those running Linux on some laptop are most likely relying on proprietary closed source software at one level or another. The BIOS of the laptop is likely to be proprietary. Various codecs for audio and video may be proprietary. This becomes even more complicated when dealing with telephony. Likewise many of the components that Nokia uses in the phone are likely to have proprietary aspects, down to competitive edge that various energy saving algorithms might provide one component manufacturer over another.

So, there are some big questions that Nokia has to face. Can a hardware manufacturer ever be as open as open source aficionados would like? Can a company whose core business is not open source software build a culture within the company, or at least that section of the company dealing with open source software that works well with the broader open source community?

The other side of this same question is, can the open source community be open enough to make room for people who want to make money developing software for an open source device? Can the open source community be open enough peacefully coexist with closed source developers working for the same platform?

It seems as if the biggest problems that Nokia needs to face are not technological. The N900 is a great piece of hardware, and I’ve really found the Maemo operating environment a pleasure to work in. No, the biggest issues are cultural and so far I see too little progress on either side of the open source divide to give me much hope for the future of the N900.

So, I will continue to use my wonderful little phone. I’ll do what I can to write apps, or help others write apps. Yet I will also be prepared for the day when my Nokia N900 joins my Apple Newton in the drawer of “Moses” devices, those that spoke of, and led the way to the promised land, but never lived to see it.

Maybe I’ll be wrong. Maybe some folks at Nokia and some folks in the open source world will find away to bridge the divide. It would be great to see, and I’ll watch closely. But, I won’t hold my breath. I’ll just keep using my N900 the way I have been until the next big disruption comes along.

(Categories: )