The story has been told many times at this point: just as work on MeeGo was
reaching some sort of stable point, Nokia, one of the principal partners in
the MeeGo project, went through a change in management, dropped MeeGo, and
committed the company to a close partnership with Microsoft. MeeGo remains
under development, but, with the primary handset manufacturer gone, the
mood is somewhat subdued. Nokia's plan was always to produce one MeeGo
handset, though; that handset has now been
in the form of the Nokia N9. Is the N9 a one-off device, or might there be
more where it came from?
If your editor had an N9 in hand (hint), he could write a proper review of
it; in the absence of such luck he'll have to take the word of others. By
all accounts, the N9 is a nice device indeed. The hardware is nicely
designed with entirely respectable specifications. The software is said to
be the realization of much of the potential that many of us have seen in
MeeGo. All told, it seems to be a clear statement that, despite
indications to the contrary, Nokia can indeed make an interesting,
competitive handset in 2011. It's the touchscreen-based smartphone that
Nokia desperately needed to make.
There have been some questions as to whether the system running on this
phone is actually MeeGo or not. By the terms of the MeeGo specification,
it is not; it retains too much of its original Maemo heritage. That said,
Nokia did obtain permission to use the MeeGo trademark with this system,
which has been dubbed "MeeGo 1.2 Harmattan," so it is, in some sense,
MeeGo. One thing this version of MeeGo
does have is Qt as the graphics toolkit, so it does show Nokia's intended
direction for the MeeGo user interface. Of course, the use of proprietary
applications at the "user experience" level has also been part of the MeeGo
plan from the beginning.
Given how well this phone has been received, one might well hope that Nokia
might reconsider its plan to move away from the MeeGo platform. After all,
it has demonstrated that it can produce an interesting handset based on
some version of MeeGo; why not continue, especially if the N9 sells well?
Unfortunately, it does seem like Nokia is not hugely interested in making
this phone a success. Developers will be understandably reluctant to put
time into creating applications for a one-off device. The "check
availability" page lets potential customers request a notification when
the phone becomes available - but not if they are in the United States or
much of Europe. And then there is the matter of that deal with Microsoft;
the folks in Redmond may think that the billions of dollars apparently sent
to Nokia should be enough to keep competing operating systems off Nokia's
So the situation looks grim. Still, the world can be a surprising place,
especially where corporations are involved. An awful lot could happen over
the course of the next year. The N770 and N800 tablets did not have clear
successors either - they weren't even phones. The N900 was expected to be
a one-off as well. So history suggests that Nokia might yet see an
interest in creating more MeeGo-based phones in the near future, regardless
of what has been said in the last few months.
For those who like to read tea leaves, there is this
posting from Nokia's Quim Gil. Quim says that there are four important
software components to the N9: Qt, the Linux kernel, WebKit, and the
"swipe" user interface. Nokia, he notes, continues to invest in the
development of all of these components. He says:
However, look back at the four essential pieces above and keep in
mind that Nokia is investing in all of them. Even if working on
them is really fun, you may guess that Nokia is not paying the
teams for the fun of it. It is sensible to expect more to come in a
form or another.
One could speculate endlessly on what "a form or another" means; it might
not be handsets. Regardless, it seems possible that MeeGo is not entirely
dead at Nokia. A breeze from the right direction might
just get things moving in a more interesting direction again.
That breeze could come from the corporate direction; Stephen Elop, having
presided over a nearly 50% drop in Nokia's stock price in just a few
months, might struggle to retain his position. For a number of reasons,
Windows has struggled to gain any serious success in the handset market;
that track record may not change in the next year or so. For some wilder
(and voluminous) speculations, see this
article suggesting that Microsoft's acquisition of Skype has turned the
carriers against Windows-based handsets and that Nokia is in the middle of
a big about-face.
What will come of all this is unknowable; expecting rational, consistent,
or predictable behavior from corporations is a good way to be surprised.
But Nokia may just change its mind about MeeGo phones again; we may also
see other manufacturers develop an interest in Linux-based alternatives to
Android. All we really know is that the N9 has seemingly shown the world
how good a MeeGo-based handset (for some value of "MeeGo") can be.
Hopefully good things will come from that.
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