One week with the N900


This is me pimping a Nokia product. I work for Nokia and I rarely do this, and never without believing 100% what I write.

With some delays, I managed to get my hands on a N900. Our internal ordering system took nearly five months to deliver this thing (something involving bureaucracy and the popularity of this device. I guess the external paying customers lining up for it had some priority too). But it was well worth the wait.

For those who don’t know what the N900 is: it is the first phone in a series of linux based tablet devices from Nokia that started with the N770 in 2006, the N800 (which I still have), and the N810. As such, this series of devices was the start of something beautiful a few years ago. Not hindered by any operator limitations, these were essentially pocketable linux pcs. So naturally the engineers working on this, selected Debian Linux and named it Maemo Linux. Then they built a tool chain and ecosystem around the platform and tapped into all the readily available OSS goodies. It was great. Any research lab in need of some hackable devices jumped on this. As I recall when I was still doing pervasive computing research, most of the researchers in this field were using these devices to study all sorts of stuff. Because no matter how obscure your OSS project is, barring screen and cpu limitations you can probably get it going on Maemo Linux. You can, and people did. Most of Ubuntu cross compiles to Maemo without much effort. For example, I was running a tomcat, equinox, and lucene on a port of Sun’s CDC J2ME environment (roughly equivalent to java 1.4) on a N800 three years ago. It actually ran well too. In short, these babies are the ultimate hackers devices. There really is no alternative in terms of openness or scope in the industry. Android may be linux deep down inside, and Palm OS may be linux deep down inside, but Maemo is Debian Linux without buts or ifs.

And now there is the N900. The N900 is about as thick as a N97, about as long and about 3mm wider and slightly heavier (I actually did the comparison). Unlike its predecessors, it is a phone as well as a Debian linux running internet tablet. So all the goodness from the past version with a 2X performance and memory boost, a good quality phone stack (hey, it’s still a Nokia), and lots of UI work. While it has some rough edges (the software, not the hardware), it is surprisingly useful as a smart phone despite its current status as an early adopter’s device. It has one of the best browsers around (some would say the best); the UI is responsive and very touch friendly, it multitasks without effort, and it comes with tons of goodies like SIP, skype, google talk, Facebook, twitter support. And that’s just the out of the box stuff. You can do most of what the N900 does on an iphone. But not all at once. You can on the N900, plus some.

So, best phone ever as far as I’m concerned. Meego, the consumer friendly version of Maemo that was born out of our recent deal with Intel and MobLin, is coming soon in the form of new Nokia phones (you can already get it for net books). I can’t wait for world+dog to start porting over their favorite software to that. Meanwhile, I just use it as is, which is plenty good. It’s a great smart phone that plays back my music, browses the web (including Google Maps, Youtube, Facebook, and other web 2.0 heavy AJAX & flash sites) without much effort. Most of the iphone optimized web apps work great on the N900 as well. For example, I use the iphone optimized mobile Google Reader ( Mail support is excellent on this device, I use mail for exchange push email and gmail. I can do regular calls, VOIP, Skype (with video), IM, upload photos/videos to facebook, flickr, and other networks. Functionally there is little left to desire. Though somebody getting a foursquare client beyond the early Alpha stage would be nice (there’s two of those).