From the first time we saw Nokia's N900 handheld computer we thought that it would be the ultimate communications device. With a large screen, fast processor, open OS and Firefox based browser, it seemed destined to become one of Nokia's major success stories. This was early September 2009, Nokia was showing off the device at their NokiaWorld conference, along with a new version of their N97 Symbian smartphone, and it looked like the N900 was the flagship product the the N97 SHOULD have been when it came out a few months earlier. We jumped on the bandwagon and were early supporters of the device.
Fast forward to the end of 2009 and it seems like the N97, now with it's 2.0 firmware, is the better device despite all the power user advantages that the N900 should be enjoying. Meanwhile Nokia can't seem to get the N900 software stable enough for executives and power users to depend upon.
Now, please try to understand, we REALLY want to like the N900. We also really like the way that Nokia has opened up the Maemo OS platform to developers. But it's just impossible to ignore the fact that Nokia isn't able to put enough power behind Maemo to compete with Google and their Android OS. In the same time that Nokia has managed to soft launch one Maemo device, there have been a dozen Android devices from multiple vendors, and 40 or 50 more scheduled for 2010. Additionally, there are over 20,000 applications available from third parties already for Android. There's a few quality applications for Maemo, but honestly you can count them on your fingers and toes, and none of them are really mission critical.
In a recent example that it is being proactive on the software front, Nokia released a firmware update the adds support for the still widely used Exchange 2003 E-mail/calendar/address book (previously there was only support for Exchange 2007).
Advanced messaging including Skype, Google Talk, and SIP (VoIP) has been beautifully integrated into the native address book, dialer, and SMS/IM client, BUT isn't polished or configurable enough. For example, Skype is fully integrated as a core service for the N900. It works wonderfully for making Skype calls via WiFi, and offers Skype "chat" as well. This integration is so complete that the Skype status of you Skype contact shows up in the address book and on desktop icons.
It's impressive and powerful, but it also comes with address book integration problems that cause multiple entries for your contacts, and while these can be "merged" together using a feature of the N900 address book, these merged entries don't sync back to Exchange correctly. And good luck trying on "un-merge" two entries if you make a mistake during the merging process.
There's also the issue that any instant messaging "conversation" you have (including Skype chat) sets off your N900's alarms with every line of text received. In a more mature product there would be some way to have it "beep" when the conversation was started, but keep quiet after for subsequent messages. There's a general lack of font selectability in e-mail and chat applications, which is something that would add to usability but just isn't configurable. We could make an exhaustive list, but there's little point; the platform needs more time to mature.
Overall, we'd have to say we're frustrated with the N900. We had high hopes for the device, and it seems that there's a lot of work still needed to bring the Maemo platform to maturity. The key to this will be to have core applications that are rock solid and to attract third party developers that will write applications for the platform. Nokia really isn't there yet with either of these, and frankly we're not sure how they can win the hearts and minds of the developers with the lead the Apple and Google have with their platforms. For now we're just going to wait and see how quickly Nokia can shave off the sharp corners on Maemo, improve the core applications on the N900, and generally make the device more usable. Until then, Nokia's N900's potential remains, for the most part, unrealized.
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