On the N9 and MeeGo

Lukas Mathis on the Nokia N9 Demo and MeeGo:

It’s hard to understand why Nokia doesn’t bet everything on this OS. Windows Phone 7 is fantastic, but the market for WP7 phones will soon be entirely commoditized. Nokia needs to control its own operating system if it wants to compete with companies like Samsung, HTC, and Huawei.

Right. This is what I was thinking about Tuesday, but I got lazy and didn’t really spell out the implications. If MeeGo is as good as Nokia’s demo makes it look, then it strikes me as a tragic — possibly catastrophic — mistake for Nokia to abandon it in favor of Windows Phone. The N9 looks like a credible top-shelf smartphone contender.

But demos, of course, are easy to embellish. It could be that in practice, the N9 and MeeGo are nowhere near as polished or useful as these demos make it seem. (One DF reader emailed, claiming to have seen a pre-production unit earlier this month, and said that much of the animation on the unit was stuttery.)1 And maybe the problem is with the MeeGo APIs and developer tools — that they’re just not up to snuff compared to iOS, Android, and Windows Phone. I.e., it could be that the N9 will be a good phone out of the box — as compared to, say, an out-of-the-box iPhone or Android phone — but that MeeGo is not a competitive software platform. The whole point of these app phones is that you can add software to them.

I agree with David Heinemeier Hansson that the lack of a large third-party app library does not doom the N9 — or any other future new mobile platforms — out of the gate. I agree that most users only rely on a small number of apps, and maybe just a few third-party ones. But he glosses over the fact that with a large library of a few hundred thousand apps, the odds increase significantly that even if you only want 10 apps, that you’ll be able to find satisfying implementations of all 10. Your killer apps are not necessarily my killer apps. What a new mobile platform needs to succeed, to come out of the gate and make a dent in the market, is to be noticeably better in some significant way — or even better, ways, plural — than those platforms already on the market. That’s all.

What I’m saying though, is that maybe Nokia CEO Stephen Elop determined that MeeGo would never have a competitive third-party library of apps. Not just that a new MeeGo-based flagship phone would come out of the gate with a limited selection of third-party apps, but that it would never offer more than a meager selection of third-party apps. Platforms and developer tools are hard.

Either way, though, it just goes to show how deep a hole Nokia is in. If the N9 is as good as it looks in the demo, why is Nokia betting on Windows Phone rather than MeeGo? And if it’s not as good as it looks, what has Nokia been doing for the past four years? And why are they bothering to finish the N9 and ship this? How does this do anything other than confuse — and, arguably, mislead — their customers?

  1. Update: Within an hour of publishing this piece, I’ve received a handful of emails from various readers who’ve seen the N9 in person this week, and report that scrolling and animation performance are good — in the ballpark of the iPhone, and decidedly better than Android. I.e. that the performance in Nokia’s demo video is indicative of actual performance. ↩︎