If you could distil all of phone maker Nokia’s troubles these days to one single term, it is this: catch up. The company may still be the world’s largest maker of mobile phones, with one-third share of the global market, but it has long struggled to impress with its hardware or software.
No segment of the business highlights this lacuna for Nokia more than the lucrative smartphone market. Nokia has tried time and again to create a handset that can somehow replicate the buzz and excitement, leave alone the critical appreciation, that radiates from an iPhone, Nexus One or even a BlackBerry launch.
Would you stay up all night to hear what the Nokia CEO had to say about his latest phones at some presentation? Not really.
The good stuff
The N900 runs on Maemo 5, Nokia’s smartphone operating system based on the open-source Debian Linux distribution.
Though popular among tech enthusiasts, programmers and hackers for its open-source structure, the Maemo operating system or devices never captured the popular imagination. The N900, however, could change things for both the operating system and the hardware.
Nokia is also trying to bridge the gap between smartphones and the more powerful mobile Internet devices (MIDs). So one way to think of the N900 is as a device meant for browsing and applications, with a phone built in. Rather than the other way around. The handset, various online forums seem to suggest, is very versatile when it comes to modifying, updating and hacking.
The N900 has excellent hardware. It’s powered by a powerful processor, and has a good 3.5-inch, 800x480 TFT display. The phone has on-board GPS, FM receiver and transmitter, Wi-Fi, Bluetooth and a 5-megapixel camera.
At first glance, the interface is beautiful and the touch screen responsive. Maemo 5 has a splendid home screen with visual effects that blur out background fields, and uses background images that give a sense of depth to the interface.
One of the phone’s strengths is its multimedia playing abilities. The test piece came with a trailer for Tim Burton’s 9 on board. The experience is brilliant.
The N900 is an odd beast at first glance. It is a big brick of a phone, almost as big as two iPod touches, one placed on top of the other. In fact, you would be forgiven for thinking that the device in your hands is a prototype. It is remarkably plain in design, colour and assembly.
Also, once you get beyond basic tasks such as swiping and scrolling, you slowly begin to realize that the interface is still anything but intuitive. How do I move around widgets? How do I go back to the home screen? This isn’t always obvious, and can take some infuriating trial and error to figure out.
Another problem is that the device is designed to be used in landscape mode. Except for a few functions, flipping the phone vertically does nothing. You will need both hands free to use many screens comfortably. The no-frills keyboard underneath has no directional track pad, and prefers arrow keys instead.
What you have with the N900, priced at Rs28,449, is an immensely powerful phone with an interface that does this power no justice. In any case, the more consumer-friendly N8 is months away. And surely Nokia already has something lined up after it as it continues trying to catch up.