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MeeGo's Promising 'Debut' in Nokia's New N9


When Nokia unveiled its newest phone on Tuesday, June 21, it wasn't a Windows Phone 7 device. The Nokia N9 uses the MeeGo operating system, which Nokia originally intended to succeed its aging Symbian OS. With Nokia having adopted Windows Phone 7 as its primary platform, MeeGo was relegated to "experimental" status. That might prove to be a viable backup plan, judging from early impressions of the new smartphone.

Nokia's big problem has never been its handset hardware. The N9 continues a tradition of smart industrial design paired with capable components. A 3.9-inch, curved Gorilla Glass display dominates the phone's front face, which is buttonless. A penta-band radio ensures support for voice and mobile broadband data on many global networks, while an NFC chip allows for the possibility of simple device pairing and wireless payments.The camera specifications are typical high-end Nokia: an 8-megapixel sensor with Carl Zeiss optics, dual-LED flash and wide aperture (f/2.2) that allows for excellent low-light use.A PDF with the full specs can be found here.

Software, particularly the user interface, was the big issue for Nokia. Symbian went from market leader to has-been after 2007, when Apple launched the touch-friendly iOS platform, followed by a number of more modern operating systems such as Google Android and Palm's webOS. Nokia attempted to enable touch on Symbian in a number of handsets, but a key difference stood out: While rivals designed and built platforms specifically tailored to touch, Nokia tried to graft touch controls onto an existing user interface. MeeGo, however, is designed for touch. Had it arrived sooner, it might have stemmed Nokia's losses.

MeeGo is finally here, if only in a single handset with no official price or release date. Both phone and OS show promise, at least in first impressions. The device unlocks with a simple double-tap of the display, while a full-screen swipe returns the user to the home area from any running application. The main interface is a trio of screens in a carousel: one for application organization; one for social networking feeds, events, and notifications; and a third that shows small previews of currently running apps you can switch among.

Nokia's N8 Soon Left Me Wanting More

That sounds good, but I'd still like to go hands-on with the device. I initially had high hopes for the Nokia N8, which sported revamped Symbian software. Notwithstanding favorable first impressions, daily use left me wanting more.

Although Nokia has deemed MeeGo an experiment, there's a chance it could become more than that. The situation reminds me of a strategy Samsung employed.Samsung is set to become the top seller of smartphones after adopting Android as its main OS while maintaining Bada, its own little experimental in-house mobile platform.Bada is doing relatively well amid estimates that it will have powered 3.5 million handsets during the first quarter of this year.

Simply put, Samsung has built market share and expertise by selling well-designed Google Android phones while building its own software platform in the background. If MeeGo is as capable as it looks, Nokia could potentially replicate Samsung's strategy by using Microsoft Windows Phone 7 to buy the time MeeGo needs to grow. MeeGo will need more than fancy hardware and smart software. Given our growing addiction to apps, it will need a wide variety of applications in its ecosystem. MeeGo's answer for that is Qt, a cross-platform framework that lets developers run their software easily on a wide range of devices.

Had MeeGo panned out as a swift response to the 2007 iPhone launch, Nokia might well have avoided the doldrums it's in today: a recent 13-year low in stock value and a sinking smartphone market share. Now the company has linked its immediate future to that of Microsoft. Should that coupling end in divorce, MeeGo could be waiting in the wings for a second date with smartphone destiny.

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Tofel is a writer for the GigaOm Network.

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