N900 & Slashdot

I just unleashed the stuff below in a slashdot thread. 10 years ago I was a regular there (posting multiple times per day) and today I realized that I hadn’t actually even bothered to sign into slashdot since buying a mac a few months ago. Anyway, since I spent time writing this I might as well repost here. On a side note, they support OpenID for login now! Cool!

…. The next-gen Nokia phone [arstechnica.com] on the other hand (successor to the N900) will get all the hardware features of the iPhone, but with the openness of a linux software stack. Want to make an app that downloads podcasts? Fine! Want to use your phone as a modem? No problem! In fact, no corporation enforcing their moral or business rules on how you use your phone, or alienation of talented developers [macworld.com]!

You might make the case that the N900 already has the better hardware when you compare it to the iphone. And for all people dismissing Nokia as just a hardware company, there’s tons of non trivial Nokia IPR in the software stack as well (not all OSS admittedly), that provides lots of advantages in the performance or energy efficiency domain; excellent multimedia support (something a lot of smart phones are really bad at), hardware acceleration, etc. Essentially most vendors ship different combinations of chips coming from a very small range of companies so from that point of view it doesn’t really matter what you buy. The software on top makes all the difference and the immaturity of newer platforms such as Android can be a real deal breaker when it comes to e.g. battery life, multimedia support, support for peripherals, etc. There’s a difference between running linux on a phone and running it well. Nokia has invested heavily in the latter and employs masses of people specialized in tweaking hardware and software to get the most out of the hardware.

But the real beauty of the N900 for the slashdot crowd is simply the fact that it doesn’t require hacks or cracks: Nokia actively supports & encourages hackers with features, open source developer tools, websites, documentation, sponsoring, etc. Google does that to some extent with Android but the OS is off limits for normal users. Apple actively tries to stop people from bypassing the appstore and is pretty hostile to attempts to modify the OS in ways they don’t like. Forget about other platforms. Palm technically uses linux but they are still keeping even the javascript + html API they have away from users. It might as well be completely closed source. You wouldn’t know the difference.

On the other hand, the OS on the N900 is Debian. Like on Debian, the package manager is configured in /etc/sources.list which is used by dpkg and apt-get, which work just as you would expect on any decent Debian distribution. You have root access, therefore you can modify any file, including sources.list. Much of Ubuntu actually compiles with little or no modification and most of the problems you are likely to encounter relate to the small screen size. All it takes to get to that software is pointing your phone at the appropriate repositories. There was at some point a Nokia sponsored Ubuntu port to ARM even, so there is no lack of stuff that you can install. Including stuff that is pretty pointless on a smart phone (like large parts of KDE). But hey, you can do it! Games, productivity tools, you name it and there probably is some geek out there who managed to get it to build for Maemo. If you can write software and package it as a Debian package and can cross compile it to ARM (using the excellent OSS tooling of course), there’s a good chance it will just work.

So, you can modify the device to your liking at a level no other mainstream vendor allows. Having a modifiable Debian linux system with free access to all of the OS on top of what is essentially a very compact touch screen device complete with multiple radios (bluetooth, 3G, wlan), sensors (GPS, motion, light, sound), graphics, dsp, should be enough to make any self respecting geek drool.

Now with the N900 you get all of that, shipped as a fully functional smart phone with all of the features Nokia phones are popular for such as excellent voice quality and phone features, decent battery life (of course with all the radios turned on and video & audio playing none stop, your mileage may vary), great build quality and form factor, good support for bluetooth and other accessories, etc. It doesn’t get more open in the current phone market currently and this is still the largest mobile phone manufacturer in the world.

In other words, Nokia is sticking out its neck for you by developing and launching this device & platform while proclaiming it to be the future of Nokia smart phones. It’s risking a lot here because there are lots of parties in the market that are in the business of denying developers freedom and securing exclusive access to mobile phone software. If you care about stuff like this, vote with your feet and buy this or similarly open (suggestions anyone?) devices from operators that support instead of prevent you from doing so. If Nokia succeeds here, that’s a big win for the OSS community.

Disclaimer: I work for Nokia and I’m merely expressing my own views and not representing my employer in any way. That being said, I rarely actively promote any of our products and I choose to do so with this one for one reason: I believe every single word of it.