100 days with the Nokia N900

Nokia N900 application switcher

Image by addersuk via Flickr

So, I thought it was time to begin talking about the migration from the very dated Treo650. In truth, I held hope that Palm would eventually get its act together and develop a platform that would rival all of the current Linux based smart phone offerings (ie Nokia N900, Android, WebOS). Unfortunately, Palm was acquired by HP and a number of executive folks got fired. Perhaps the most interesting trend was that during the time I owned my trusty Treo, social networking became a normal past time for me. Couple that with a greater need to perform sys-admin duties and burgeoning knowledge of telephony..  Well the Palm platform quickly became deprecated for me. Palm is an example of first to market leader losing its way. Perhaps they became confused about whether people wanted a PDA or smart phone. Because we need several Linux plays in the mobile market I truly hope WebOS becomes a success. 

While we're talking about Linux plays in the market, I must say that I'm perplexed with all the folks who seem to believe that Android must reign supreme. Pure nonsense. I can appreciate that people may think that Nokia dropped the ball in their handling of the Maemo project. Sure the forthcoming MeeGo project will likely dilute the developer mind share that exists for Maemo, but there is a sizable number of developers in that space. I doubt that the people will abandon the project in droves. Sure Android now lives on a plethora of hardware platforms and lives in several wireless carrier silos, I still assert that you need more than one Linux mobile play to keep GOOG honest. If you truly believe in the F/OSS software development model, the bazaar as ESR describes will dictate the value proposition of various projects. Not marketing and promotion. Android, Maemo/MeeGo and WebOS all must co-exist to truly provide a rich Linux choice in the battle for the pocket. Because I do not have a crystal I cannot predict if all will survive. Nonetheless, if you love F/OSS particularly Linux, you must get beyond marketing and promotion and understand that having more than one choice for a Linux stack on a mobile platform is a tremendous achievement. GOOG marketing treasure trove notwithstanding, hackers want choice too.

Nokia has always made excellent hardware, and despite the fact they probably moved too slow in understanding that Symbian is not sustainable in the long term, I think that Nokia will be fine. I now have both the N800 and N900. To be honest, I don't use my N800 very much anymore, as the N900 has everything I need and then some. However, I could use the device for video conferencing and general use web browsing. Since I only paid a c-note for the N800, I have not wasted any cash and I am still happy about my purchase.

Well let's talk about the N900 shall we?  It's probably worth noting why I chose not to purchase an Android device. I was concerned with privacy, pure and simple. I already have a few gmail accounts and spend a fair amount of time with their search engine. Really did not want to purposely make it easy for GOOG to continue to index my life.  Sure I know there are means to protect myself when using an Android device, but I was convinced that the effort was not worth it. Additionally, there were so many Linux netcasts disparaging the N900 I just had to purchase one ;-)

There is so much to cover, as the device is really remarkable. I'll have to talk about the items which stand out to me.

  • Hardware
  • Customization
  • Presence
  • Kernel
  • Battery Life
Nokia has been in the handset business for a number of years. Nokia was the market leader and chief innovator for a number of years. They seemed to have lost their way in the mid to late 90's. Apparently, they had grown too large and began to dilute its brand with poor quality handsets to take advantage of the economies of scale. It was difficult to balance quality, cost and function equation. It does appear that Nokia has really listened to the voice of the customer as it pertains to practical functionality. The N900 series addresses most if not all of the shortcomings of the N800 series and some of the popular mobile devices. The form factor is still rather large when compared to iphone and some HTC models. However, the N900 is more than a smartphone, it is a full functioning Linux mobile device built for your pocket.

The platform is truly open, and you do not have to jailbreak your device to make it useful. Running 'rootsh' is all you need to get root on the command line in a terminal. The slide out keyboard took awhile for me to get used to, but it is a full QWERTY.  I also like the kickstand that can be accessed from the camera lens. The Carl Zeiss 5MP camera is my most powerful digital camera.  Perhaps what I like most is the ARM Cortex-A8 processor architecture. It is quite responsive and definitely rivals iPhone and HTC Snapdragon processor. The N900 comes with 32GB of flash memory, and its storage is expandable with 16GB micro SDHC. Total of 48GB of storage in your pocket not too shabby. 

Customization - You can easily run a web server, ssh daemon, PBX and a slew of other traditionally server based programs on the N900. If you really have a fetish for Android, you could also dual boot with this OS as well. There is even a comprehensive suite of "penetration testing" applications that you could run. The possibilities are endless ;-)

If you are not really a person who cares to peak under the hood, you can still appreciate the level of freedom and customization that you will enjoy over the majority commercial players.
I particularly like the how the N900 uses its virtual desktops. If you have ever used a Linux desktop box, this will be quite familiar to you. A simple swipe of the finger sends you to another desktop. You can run a simple screencast of your N900 desktop if you choose.
I grabbed the custom kernel so that I could try my hand at the Debian LXDE, I simply run VNC and take advantage of a larger screen monitor in my lab. Very slick indeed.

Presence - What do I mean by presence? Well, during the days of my Treo 650. I often used AOL IM to chat with friends. It was often difficult to let people know that I was driving or otherwise indisposed to grant their request for conversation.  I was also unable to know whether friends were using other social network apps and if they were indeed willing to chat with me ;-)  The N900 has a built in feature called "conversations" which index your social communications (ie phone, Internet, SMS, etc).  At a glance, I can see who is available or not. I can change my status across an array of social apps.  The guessing is over.

I mentioned that I use a custom kernel to afford me the opportunity to run and compile various GNU/Linux programs. It's quite remarkable to see people packaging kernel headers for a large compliment of embedded systems. So I can compile any program specifically for my ARM architecture. 

I saved Battery Life for last because it too remarkable, but not in a good way. The battery life is abysmal, but I would argue that that is not so much the fault of the N900. Perhaps more of an Li-ON battery industry issue. If I place the device into tablet mode and shutdown the 3G radio, the battery life improves. Obviously, shutting down Wi-Fi and Bluetooth also helps. However, without these features your "mini-computer" is severely limited. Hopefully, there are some solutions coming down the pipeline.

Regarding Maemo5 interface, I often get frustrated with having to use a stylist for certain touch functions. It really needs to be more consistent between applications. Either your interface is going to hand-touch or stylist. No reason to have both. You could actually get rid of the stylist altogether if you would use tooltip or drop down window. The Enlightenment desktop environment made good use of tooltip.  The UI will improve as well I am sure.

In summary, when I decided to purchase a smartphone / mini-computer for my pocket. I had no intentions on buying an appliance (aka iPhone). The N900 is clearly not an appliance. Very hackable and extensible.  Though, Android OS based devices are also hackable, the GOOG prying eyes bother me. Because I believe in free software and Open Source model, I know that it is far better to have several Linux kernel based mobile devices on the market, as opposed to one.
  • WP7 Struggle for Relevance
  • Ode to the ARM
  • Mobile Open Source: Better lucky than smart
  • In Search of the Linux Smartphone
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    This page contains a single entry by AG published on December 4, 2010 3:47 AM.

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