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Nokia N900: Smartphone, Palmtop, Or Something Else?

Sunday, 25 October 2009 09:34

Written by Chris McFann

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Nokia n900 super phoneSince the Nokia N900 has been announced, there have been a plethora of online reviews and articles about competing devices. I hear about devices such as the Nokia N97, Apple iPhone, Blackberry Storm2, HTC Touch Pro2, Palm Pre, and upcoming Verizon Droid/Motorola Sholes devices. This wasn't unexpected at all. As far as pocketable devices are concerned, on the surface, these seem to be the closest devices we could possibly compare to the N900.

They're pocketable, made by leading cellphone manufacturers, and allow you to handle communication, time management, computing, and web browsing on the go. But the similarities end there, and I intend to show exactly why the N900 is an entirely innovative, totally new type of device.

While the Nokia N97, Apple iPhone, Blackberry Storm2, HTC Touch Pro2, Palm Pre, and upcoming Verizon Droid/Motorola Sholes devices all feature high quality smartphone operating systems, they are designed to bring parts of the desktop computing environment into a handheld form factor. In doing so, many sacrifices are made, and in the end, you have an OS with many missing links, and much of what is possible on a desktop just can't be done on as easily on a smartphone.

For instance, on a Blackberry, most embedded web videos are inaccessible from the device. The iPhone lacks the ability run more than one application at once. The N97 doesn't support most of the widely available software toolkits used for desktop software development. The typical Android device, while utilizing Linux for its underpinnings, has very little functionality with Linux as we know it.


But how does the N900 stack up? And what is the closest comparable device to which the N900 should be compared? The N900 is no typical smartphone at all, and I'm not at all comfortable calling it so. I've tried searching for the proper word, and handtop or palmtop are the closest designations I've come to imagine, and they sound so catchy, I think they may already be trademarks of other companies and devices. The reason I chose those titles is because the N900 carries little part of the smartphone's heritage. No, the N900 gets its heritage from the desktop and laptop world, and is the natural progression to make the desktop computing experience even more portable, like the laptops have done the last couple decades.


I know, I can hear the laughs already. I've heard iPhone users say their devices are like mobile computers, to which I've always disagreed. But the N900 is absolutely a mobile computer, and nothing like the smartphones we've grown used to. The heart of the N900 is its operating system. Maemo 5 is nothing more than Debian Linux with a finger optimized user interface along with some custom PIM and telephony features.


Linux, as most will know, is the free open source software alternative to the Microsoft Windows desktop operating system. The closest thing to Maemo in the technology world isn't any of the smartphone OSes, but Debian Linux variants such as Ubuntu. Just how closely related are Maemo and, say, Linux Mint, a popular variant of Ubuntu which happens to be my favorite Linux OS distribution? Lets take a look and compare from various perspectives.


Both Maemo 5 and Linux Mint have scrollable desktops, as referred to in the Windows world, or workspaces if you are from the Linux world. This isn't unique to Maemo, however. Android devices have the same feature. But it is still something to tie it to the Linux desktop world.



Linux has a feature called APT, for advanced packaging tool, which is the component by which all software is packaged, distributed, and installed. Linux Mint uses this system through its Synaptic Package Management front end. Maemo uses the same system, only rebadged as simply the Application Manager. Both allow access to download applications and upgrades, all free of charge. So while smartphone operating systems all are pushing for application delivery channels, Linux, and hence Maemo, have a robust channel built in, and all of the applications are of no cost to the consumer. Maemo has plans to implement the Ovi Store, so the ability to buy apps will come in the future. However, Linux is the centerpiece of the FOSS, or free open source software, community, so many of the apps for Maemo will be free desktop quality applications available right from the Application Manager.

This same mechanism also allows users to try apps and feature add-ons that are still in development via catalogues. Just like in Linux Mint, you can add catalogs to the Application Manager to access a large library of both finished and experimental in-development software, all at no cost. There is little difference between the desktop Linux Mint and Maemo in this area, which is probably one of its advantages over the smartphones they are regulary compared to.


Maemo 5 and Linux Mint have few differences other than the user interface layers. Creating software to run on either of the two would require the same toolkits, which are all open source and readily available, widely used toolkits. While there is a Maemo 5 SDK, many Maemo developers use the widely available tools to create software just as you would on any typical Linux/Unix software system. This is directly opposite of software development on the top smartphone OSes. In fact, while both the iPhone OS and Android are referred to as "*nix-based", neither has much in common with BSD or Linux at all, and uses none of the tools commonly used to create software for the Unix/Linux ecosystem. They are no more a Linux system than a TiVo set top box, which also uses Linux at its core, but has none of the features or capabilities of a typical Linux desktop.

Another big difference is in how and which applications can be installed. Most applications have some sort of certification process. Apple's iPhone has a strict policy that only allows apps to be installed via its App Store, and only those that pass its strict approval process. No apps can duplicate functionality, so there are no alternatives to the default applications included in the operating system. Android is similar, though they do allow functionality to be duplicated in most cases. Symbian requires all apps to be digitally signed, so that all apps are certified before they are installed by the user for that particular device. Linux, and thus Maemo, allows apps to be installed via the apt mechanism, as well as through the command line interface available in the terminal.


Anyone who has used Linux knows the raw functionality of the OS can be controlled via the command line interface. This is called the terminal, and of course its also available with Maemo. You can establish control as "root", which is like having administrative control of all features. All of the known commands from desktop Linux Oses work just as well in the Maemo ecosystem.

n900 terminal x

This means you have complete access to the entire system, just as you would on any desktop system. None of the available smartphone OSes have such access, including Symbian, which is the closest smartphone OS in similarity to a desktop system, since some files are hidden from the user. This unfettered access means Maemo is more moddable and versatile than any other mobile OS available, and the possibilities of the platform are basically limited only by the hardware of the device.


The N900 uses GTK, Qt, C, C++, Ruby, Python, and other technologies upon which to run its applications. These are the same as any other Linux system. As has been the theme, there is no difference, and this is because Maemo 5 IS Linux. I really think Nokia should call it Maemo Palmtop Linux, because outside of the optimizations for finger control via touchscreen, no differences exist. The same APIs are used to access the available hardware, and in fact, many applications designed to run on Linux Mint or other Ubuntu based Debian Linux distros will run just as easily on the N900. There may be the need to use a stylus, and some applications need minor modification to allow the use of the touchscreen functions, but the difference between the two are negligible.


From the aforementioned evidence, it is quite obvious now that the N900 is not very similar to smartphones as we know them. The capabilities and agility of the Maemo 5 ecosystem is unmatched in the smartphone market. Maemo has absolutely nothing to do with smartphones, but everything to do with desktops. Maemo's closest competitors aren't smartphones, but Windows XP/Vista/7-based laptops, netbooks, and web tablets; Ubuntu-based laptops, netbooks, and internet tablets; and Mac OSX laptops. None of these make telephone calls via the traditional GSM cellular networks, have a built in videoconferencing/webcam sensor, imaging camera with high end optics, nor can they be used strictly with the touch of a finger.

The N900 creates a new class of mobility and computing that is totally unprecedented, and will likely be imitated in the near future. It will take a while before the tech community will be able to realize exactly what the N900 means to mobile computing. Once they start leaving the laptop at home, they'll get the picture. If you're into convergence, it has arrived, and a new era has begun. Soon we'll know whether the world is ready for this innovative entry from Nokia. It isn't your typical smartphone, and in fact, its not a smartphone at all, its a... handtop....palmtop...or how about just a mobile computer?.


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