After many weeks of anticipation I was finally able to obtain a Nokia N900, the new Maemo Linux-powered tablet computer. This is the device I wanted fifteen years ago, when the web was just taking off. While it resembles the smart phones that currently dominate the mobile marketplace, the N900 is more like a mobile computer because it runs on an open source operating system that potentially enables it to evolve faster than others.
When buying any new technology an important evaluation metric to is the health of the supporting community, including user groups, developers and the companies around it. This logic is even more important when it comes to open source projects, as community health and dynamics are explicitly tied to their usability and the direction of future development.
I've been a linux user for over a decade (and a *BSD user before that), so I'm pretty comfortable using a command line and debugging my operating system. I've also learned to appreciate and expect the openness that such a system offers. Any problem has almost always already been found and fixed by someone else, and it's easy enough to find instructions for resolving the issue. Personally, I find this kind of grassroots collaborative approach far easier to engage with and learn from than the typical frustrating technical support you get from a large company.
Another empowering aspect of open source tech is the speed at which it can evolve and improve. Think of this along the lines of your product maintaining velocity in a society that seems to be constantly accelerating. Most technology is built with planned obsolescence in mind, so the item you buy today is fated to be obsolete tomorrow.
While it's difficult to navigate this embedded systemic logic, there is potential in devices like the N900 to resist and adapt, due to both their open system and their forward thinking design. While some credit for this is due to Nokia for pursuing an alternate development strategy, the real potential and attention should go to the Maemo community.
Which is not to say that Nokia does not face a real challenge in finding a market for this device. They faced a number of delays to its release, and in all honesty it is still a kind of beta device that helps prove the concept, but still has a number of bugs. Yet I was going to travel to NYC for the launch in late October but didn't bother going once I learned the device would not actually be available. Fortunately I was in Chicago in late November and picked it up at the soon to be closing Nokia flagship store on Miracle Mile.
Over the past couple of weeks I have grown quite fond of this device. At first I kept wanting to call it a phone, but you quickly understand it is so much more. For example, I am presently writing this blog entry using a blue tooth keyboard and the TV-out feature on the device. Its displayed on my HD tv and with the wireless keyboard i'm able to type as fast as usual. Why bother with the laptop when I could carry the device and mini keyboard in my pocket? (The picture at right shows the keyboard, my N900, and my HD TV on the top right. Hard to make out that the screens are displaying the same output, click for a larger version where you can see a bit better. Star Wars legends guard the device.)
In addition to the TV-out feature there's also an FM transmitter which means when in the car it's easy to listen to the media I've downloaded on to the 32GB drive. The wifi connection also makes it easy to find free bandwidth, and it switches in seamlessly over my Rogers data connection. However while the device supports a wide range of frequencies and 3G standards, on Rogers I only get 2.5G, which I don't entirely mind as it's good enough for me and helps keep my monthly bill low. For example here's some video of a friend's demolition party I shot and streamed live from my N900 to the web via qik.com.
During my initial two weeks of testing I have pushed the limit on battery and had a ton of apps and tasks running simultaneously demonstrating the multitasking capabilities of the Maemo Linux O/S. The Hildon desktop is really nice (here are some pics of my early desktops), and add to this the 5mp Carl Zeiss lens and its easy to take photos on the go. Here are some pics from a walk I took my in my neighbourhood while runing multimedia and the eCoach GPS app and posting to Facebook etc.
The web browser on the device is a custom Mozilla build that is optimized for both the device and mobile computing in general. Add to this the upcoming release of a mobile version of Firefox, initially only for the N900 and the potential of this device really starts to become clear.
I should also mention that Skype is built directly into the phone application on the device, in addition to supporting any SIP based VoIP, such as a custom asterisk setup.
Yet it is important to repeat the fact that this device is really the first of its kind, and may not be right for the typical user who doesn't want any involvement in the operation and maintenance of their device. While you could own and use this device without any Linux or open source knowledge, or even any effort on your part at all, that would not take advantage of its full potential.
On the other hand a great alternative, especially for people here in Canada, is Nokia's N97 phone (pictured to the right), which Bell Canada just announced support for, the first carrier to do so in North America. The N97 has similar hardware to the N900 and runs the more stable and mature Symbian operating system. Combined with Bell's newly upgraded HSPA network the phone has a ton of features and can upload/download at super speeds.
Although if you're like me, and you can't wait, and you want that open source Linux phone now, then you may have to put in some effort to get a hold of this device. If you're in Toronto, there's even a rather large and active thread on the subject.
Yesterday I attended an event held by Nokia and Bell to launch the N97 here in Canada. It was well attended with most people quite impressed with the device and its capabilities. However when I took out my N900, to take photos like the one on the right for example, there was even more interest, as people wanted to learn about this exciting new path for Nokia. The future is open source, no doubt about it.
Therefore I should also mention that the N900 is not the only Linux phone on the market. Google's Android mobile operating system is both Linux-based and open source. However the first version of the Android operating system is fairly buggy (and not well supported by carriers like Rogers), and the logic behind the o/s is not as open and flexible as Maemo. I have an Android Developer Phone, and I have been playing with it, and it is nowhere near as nifty as the N900. Yet with that said, Google is a major player, and expect them to throw significant weight behind their Android platform and its potential mobile devices. In other words, stay tuned for more innovation and rapid change when it comes to the growing world of mobile computing.
Update: MobileSyrup.com is reporting that WIND will indeed be bringing the N900 to Canada! Smart move WIND.