There is value in whining at times. At a recent conference, your editor
complained that he had been unable to get a sense for what MeeGo is really
like since nobody had ever sent him an N9 handset. Some time thereafter, a
shiny blue N9 showed up on the doorstep courtesy of the kind folks at
Nokia. What follows are various
impressions from playing with this new toy; your editor, normally an
Android user, has found a lot to both like and dislike in this seemingly
doomed smartphone platform.
The N9 is an attractive device, only slightly larger than a Nexus One. The
spouse, upon handling it, complained about the rather sharp corners - but
proved reluctant to hand the device back anyway. The corners do stand out
in an age when everything is supposed to be rounded, and they can dig into
the palm slightly, but it's all a matter of taste. The handset's
specifications are reasonably standard for this vintage of device;
there is a 1GHz processor, 1GB of RAM, and 16GB of storage. In a welcome
change from previous Nokia devices, the N9 uses a standard micro-USB
connector instead of something special Nokia made up for that specific
handset. The camera is quite nice; there is also a front-facing camera,
though the built-in Skype client is unable to use it. By all appearances,
the handset is sealed forevermore; replacing the battery does not appear to
be an option.
Android users will have likely gotten used to that environment's home screen
which can be populated (especially with CyanogenMod builds) with a wide
variety of application launchers, contact shortcuts, active widgets, and
more. The N9 MeeGo experience is somewhat different, in that there are
three specialized home screens with limited potential for customization.
The first of these is the familiar matrix of icons providing access to
applications on the phone. Users can rearrange the icons (including
putting them into subfolders), but there is no way to put anything other
than application launchers on this screen.
It is also possible to remove applications via this screen.
Dishearteningly, one quickly learns that, as with many Android builds, some
applications have been rendered immortal and unremovable. Your editor has
little use for Facebook or Twitter applications, but they cannot be made to
go away. The best that can be done is to move them to a folder where, at
least, they can be kept out of sight.
The second "home" screen (accessible via a left or right swipe across the
screen) shows the running applications in a 2x2 grid. Their current
screens are visible, and specific applications can be killed if desired.
As one might expect, tapping on an application's screen brings it back to
the foreground. The third screen is a notification area; messages, weather
information, and the latest urgent Twitter spam will show up here.
Annoyingly, none of the home screens rotate when the phone is held in the
landscape orientation. Applications handle rotation without trouble, but
the home screens appear to be special.
The applications shipped with the phone are generally attractive and nice
to use - though sometimes they seem to get into dead end screens where a
"back" button would be nice to have. There is a mapping and navigation
application that works nicely and comes with suitably annoying voices in a
wide range of languages. The camera application is feature-rich and
responsive. There is a central account manager that organizes access
credentials; interestingly, it can hook into Google, but not for contact
information. Getting access to contacts will be one of the first things a
former Android user will want to do; fortunately it is possible by telling
the phone that Google is an Exchange server. WiFi tethering is built into
the phone but "forbidden" for US users; fortunately, one can install the
"SpotOn" application to get around that bit of obnoxiousness.
On the other hand, the web browser makes one wish for the Android
equivalent. Android's browser has a "fit page to screen" option that does
a nice job of rendering the interesting part of a web page in an optimally
readable form; the MeeGo browser, instead, just mashes the entire page,
unreadably, onto the screen, requiring zoom-in gestures and side-to-side
scrolling for almost every
page that has not been specifically designed for small screens. That
Android feature, arguably, is on its own responsible for the
fact that nobody at LWN has found the time to make a more mobile-friendly
version of the site; the N9 has made it clear that not everybody has as
good an experience.
The MeeGo on-screen keyboard, while being entirely functional, is also not
as nice as the Android equivalent. There appears to be no built-in
spelling correction or word prediction, making typing a longer and more
error-prone process. That is one of the bigger shortcomings of this
system. Typing on keyboard-less handsets is a painful enough procedure even
with a top-quality on-screen keyboard; this is not the place for a
second-rate solution. (Correction: there is a simple
prediction mechanism that only seems to appear some of the time; it is
better than nothing, but doesn't change the main point of this paragraph).
There is, naturally, an applications store full of things to add on to an
N9. A number of important programs are there, and, inevitably, the handset
comes with Angry Birds already installed. The range of available
applications falls far short of that found in the Android store, though.
That is far from surprising; given that MeeGo was a lame-duck platform from
the beginning, there will be little motivation for developers to put any
time into supporting it.
Inside the device
The MeeGo system is a far more Linux-like environment than Android
provides. A terminal application comes preinstalled on the device; it
works well enough for what it is, but the truth of the matter is that
trying to do command-line work with an on-screen keyboard is always going
to be painful. Fortunately, there's an easier way. If one puts the device
into developer mode (a simple menu tweak) and plugs it into a computer's
USB port, the device offers to connect in "SDK mode." In that mode, it
presents as a network interface; there is even a built-in DHCP server so
the computer side of the connection gets configured automatically.
After that, it's
just a matter of using SSH to obtain a shell on the handset. Unlike
Android handsets, the N9 has Busybox on it from the start, so the shell is
actually reasonably usable.
For the most part, the phone environment feels like Linux. There is,
however, no functioning su command; one is, instead, supposed to
use devel-su. The result is a shell that claims to be root, but
all it takes is a find command run from the top of the filesystem
to see that root is not all-powerful on this system. There are certain
things that one still cannot access or change.
This behavior is the result of the MeeGo
security framework in action. Through a combination of trusted
computing techniques and mandatory access control, Nokia keeps the device
locked down at a certain level. It wouldn't do, after all, to let those
pesky users have direct access to the media files that they think they
bought on their handset.
Of course, keeping the users away is not the only motivation for the
security framework; it is also intended to prevent applications from acting
against the users' interests. Applications are installed with "resource
tokens" describing the actions they are allowed to carry out; they include
the ability to query location information, access the camera, make
calls, etc. Superficially it looks a lot like the Android
permissions mechanism, but the implementation appears to be wired more
deeply in at the kernel level.
Notably, the application installer does not expose resource
tokens to the user, so there is no way to know what types of access a given
application will have - a major difference from Android. One suspects that
most Android users never look at the list of requested permissions, but a
subset of us tend to examine them closely indeed. The inability to know
what access has been granted to an application seems like a major
shortcoming. That will be doubly true anywhere outside of a strict
walled-garden application repository; on this system, applications from
outside Nokia's store, if they can be installed at all, can only have a
restricted set of permissions. But, restricted or not, the user should
have the chance to review the permissions requested by an application.
What if you want to bypass the mandatory access control and truly have full
access to the device? The answer would appear to be a tool called INCEPTION. It
allows the installation of applications with full privilege; one can also
disable the security framework altogether. Your editor has not had the
time to play with this tool, but it appears to be the ticket for those who
are eager to void their warranties and reach for full control of the
Perhaps a true measure of the freedom of a piece of hardware is the
existence of independent operating system distributions for it. In the
Android world, there is CyanogenMod along with a long list of less
well-known, often more dubious, "mods." For the N9 the alternatives on
offer are somewhat more restricted, but those who are truly adventurous
can give NemoN9
a try. Nemo is the
current incarnation of the "Mer" project; it is trying to continue the
development of the MeeGo framework as an independent effort.
Unfortunately, activity in this project seems to have slowed considerably,
though it is still producing regular
releases and its use in the upcoming Vivaldi tablet may spur development in
the future. What releases Nemo has made have not found their way over to
NemoN9, though, which was last updated in November, 2011.
The end of the line
Your editor has often said in the past that MeeGo could become a credible
challenger to Android and a strong force in the mobile world in general.
After some hands-on experience with a MeeGo device, that impression has not
changed. MeeGo provides a polished and pleasant user experience. It falls
short of current Android releases in some ways, but it is much nicer to use
than the early Android-based devices were. With a bit of work, MeeGo could
have been a truly competitive - and more community-friendly - alternative.
The fact that things did not turn out that way is a sad comment on the
state of the market and the management of certain companies.
The good news is that the developers who worked on this system are out
there; many of them are still employed at Nokia. MeeGo may even see some
further development for devices other than handsets. But the sad fact is
has placed its bets on a proprietary operating system with uncertain
prospects in the mobile market. If that bet does not work out as hoped,
Nokia may yet rediscover the high-quality, free-software alternative at its
disposal. Then, perhaps, we'll see a new attempt to put MeeGo-based
handsets on the market. For now, though, the N9 has all the look of a
solid, sleek and polished platform with no future. In truth, it deserved
better than that.
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