The Tragedy of Nokia’s N9 Smartphone

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The Nokia N9 might’ve been the smartphone you dreamed of in a parallel universe, where Android and the iPhone hadn’t already gobbled up the market and where third-party app developers didn’t make or break platforms. It’s a slick-looking phone with slick-looking software, but the tragedy is that none of it really matters.

The N9 runs MeeGo, an operating system that was once supposed to be Nokia’s savior. Based on Linux and built in collaboration with Intel, MeeGo is designed to run on phones, tablets and small laptops — in other words, the devices that are the future of personal computing.

But MeeGo was slow to materialize, and Nokia was quickly becoming irrelevant. In February, Nokia announced a partnership with Microsoft, agreeing to produce hardware for Windows Phone 7. MeeGo would become a learning opportunity, rather than a serious strategy for Nokia.

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So with this first MeeGo phone, the N9, it’s hard to get excited—despite what looks like an attractive interface. There are no buttons on the front of the device, and everything is controlled by taps and swipes.

You tap the phone twice to wake it from sleep mode. You swipe left or right to bring up a menu of all open applications. You pinch that app list to view more open apps at the same time. There are three menus — one for launching new apps, one for managing open apps and one for notifications and social networking feeds. The software includes turn-by-turn voice-guided directions and a modern Webkit 2 browser.

The hardware looks great as well, with a unibody design, a 3.9-inch AMOLED display, an 8-megapixel Carl Zeiss optics camera and a choice of 16 GB or 64 GB of internal storage.

So what’s the problem? Because Nokia is more invested in Windows Phones, MeeGo will see limited support, and thus, limited interest from third-party developers. That in turn limits the usefulness of the phone, however compelling the interface may be. And with no pricing, release dates (except “later this year”) or carrier partnerships announced, the MeeGo dream is just as distant as ever. What a pity.

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