When Nokia first introduced the N-Series, they were all about pushing the limits of what a mobile phone should be. But it was mainly, on the hardware side, with software running the devices, taking a back seat.
A digital camera with Carl Zeiss optics (N90), music player with built-in hard drive (N91), mobile television set (N92), or a digital camcorder (N93) recording Mpeg-4 VGA quality video at 30 fps, are shining examples of this.
And then there was N95. The ultimate N-Series device, that defined what a high end smartphone should be, for more then a year. 5 megapixel camera, GPS, Wi-Fi, accelerometer, TV-Out, Mpeg4 video playback …
If you look at the basic hardware specs of N95 , and compare them to the specs of high end smartphones of today, they are not that different. Yes, cameras got a tad better, they might have more storage, memory, faster CPU. But, more often then not, it’s only an incremental improvement on the same basic N95 feature set.
But the success of N95, was also the beginning of problems Nokia faces today.
Before 2007, when N97 started shipping, the competition in the cellphone business was mainly about two things. Handset design and hardware, with hardware specs leading the way. You could have a huge hit with killer design and mediocre specs (just look at Motorola RAZR), but you could have even more hits, with OK design and ever improving hardware specs.
Nokia N-Series were the forefront of hardware innovation in mobile industry. The problem is, with Nokia N95, the hardware in mobile devices has become “good enough”. Yes, it took competitors about a year to catch up and offer full N95 feature set, but they have caught up by the end of 2007, beginning of 2008.
In the meantime, starting with the iPhone, competition in mobile industry (especially at the high end) has moved from the hardware platforms, to software, services and user experience. And Nokia, with it’s hardware company roots, have been caught flat footed.
Yes, Nokia probably have seen it coming even then. But to see it, and then to quickly do something about it, for such giant as Nokia, are two different things.
The launch of OVI is the best indication of that. Nokia announced that they are becoming internet company in 2007. And even went on a buying binge, snapping various companies to bolster their internet service offerings. But, if you look at the results two years after the announcement, they are very mixed, at best.
As for the Nokia N-Series handsets? After getting close to “good enough” of what a user may need, it became very hard for the Finnish hardware wizards to excite users with what they will offer next. Nokia N82 and N95 8GB where a cool improvements, showing off what a mature N95 hardware platform has to offer. But after that? N78 and N79 – nice, affordable smartphones, but not much more. N81, N96, N85? … Duh. Nokia N86? Good camera smartphone, by all accounts… among many other good camera phones.
Even their flagship for 2009 - N97, from what I heard, fell prey to Nokia hardware company genes. As the story goes – the hardware platform and specs for N97 have been finalized long ago, as was the software, handset creators were initially planning to run it. But then the shift to the online services, web runtimes, apps, etc; happened, and suddenly the device hardware was having trouble keeping up with increased software requirements. While software itself was still buggy, and not ready for primetime, even on shipment date.
But this slow decline in the “coolness” of Nokia N-Series may be coming to an end soon. With the help of Maemo OS. A slip-up by someone on Nokia Maemo team, telling us that there won’t be anymore N-Series Symbian devices after 2012, is an indication of that.
Hardware guys, Symbian and S40, may still rule on the mid to low end devices, Nokia’s main cash cow. But when it comes to “far out”, pushing the limits stuff, software guys seem to be taking over. Starting with Nokia N900 Maemo 5 handset.
According to Ari Jaaksi, head of Maemo at Nokia, even the device design process for Maemo handsets is different from what Nokia is used to. Instead of building a shining piece hardware, with multi mega pixel camera, etc; and then tweaking a software to run it, they do it the other way around. First, building and/or envisioning the software and service capabilities, and then looking at what kind of hardware is required for “these capabilities to shine”.
If you look at the hardware specs on Nokia N900, there’s really nothing special to it. Yes, it has top of the line CPU, lots of storage space, good camera, etc; But so do tons of other high end phones like iPhone, Palm Pre, Droid, Samsung Omnia II, Jet, Toshiba TG01, or Acer Liquid. Yet, the excitement about Nokia N900 is higher then about any other Nokia phone. Including heavily promoted and subsidized N97. Because of the software that runs N900.
Every other open mobile OS, even those claiming to be “Linux based”, like iPhone, Android or WebOS, are just that. Operating Systems, created for mobile devices, requiring their own set of development tools, and having capabilities that are significantly below of what any desktop OS is capable of. And they are usually created by one company, behind the closed doors, with both users and developers, guessing about upcoming features until the launch date.
The OS running Nokia N900 is a bit different. It is a standard Debian Linux OS, that would run on any PC. Nokia took this standard Debian Linux distribution, created a new user interface, optimized to run on a small screen devices, added 3G connectivity and some other stuff like power management to it. But it still is that same standard desktop OS underneath. And they have been actively involving open source community all along the way.
The results speak for themselves. Ease of use, flexibility, the best browser in town, and impressive multitasking capability of Maemo 5/N900 , won accolades from almost all early adopters, developers, tech writers and bloggers, who had a chance to put their hands on it. Even in this intermediate, unfinished form that is step 4 in Nokia’s grand five step plan for Maemo.
It looks to me, that Nokia N-Series are getting back to what they were meant to be in the beginning – pushing the limits of what’s possible on a mobile device. Only now, when hardware in the devices reached this “good enough” plateau, the limits are being pushed in software and services available on the mobile device.
And that’s what this gradual takeover of N-Series by Maemo OS is about.
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