May 10

Why the Nokia N900 is fundamentally better than the iPhone

Nokia N900As I said before, with the trial N900 gone back to WOMWorld, I wanted to compare the Nokia N900 to its most obvious competitor, the iPhone, and the outcome was important enough to do in a seperate post. So here goes.

The thing is, the N900 is not just a phone, it’s more than that. Yes, every marketing department says that every time they bring out a new phone, but in a very few cases it’s actually been true. It was true about the first smartphone; it was true about the first iPhone; and it’s true about the N900. The first smartphone was the start of the smartphone market, the first iPhone was the start of the app store and marked the real birth of the mobile web; and the N900 is the first real convergent device and it marks the first time there’s been a real, compromise-free choice between a walled garden from Apple and an open platform. There are two reasons why this is true, and why the N900 is fundamentally better than the iPhone, and more importantly, why it will remain so, and they are:

  1. Convergence. Right now, you have several communications streams — email, twitter, facebook, IM, SMS, VoIP, voice, and more. Convergence is about handling all of those in a single device, all fully supported and fully integrated, and with the ability to both consume and create content. Nothing else on the market today can touch the N900 for this, including the iPhone. The N900 takes convergence as a design principle from the hardware level on up; the iPhone does not. And the iPhone is not likely to even try to compete with the N900 in this area because Steve Jobs does not want convergenceAs Charles Stross pointed out recently, computing as we know it is just past a major tipping point that will see mobile computing change the field utterly. Whomever owns the the app store and the communications streams will own that market, and Steve Jobs realises that that ownership is key to Apple’s business model. Which takes us into the second point:
  2. Freedom. What the N900 does is to take existing communications streams (voice, VoIP, twitter, etc) and bring them all to you over one single device using open standards. The point of the N900 is to be a tool for you to use, whereas the point of the iPhone platforms is to be a tool to allow Apple to own the communications stream (ironically, that means that Nokia is now being more like Apple’s earlier days thanks to a change in philosophy at Apple that Slate recently noted). It’s a difference reflected in the nature of the two companies; Nokia makes communications devices to work on standardised networks owned by several other third parties; its products must interoperate with others well or it goes out of business. Apple, however, makes products that must not work well with other products or Apple’s business model won’t work and they go out of business. Got an iPod? How do you get music to it? Yup, iTunes. No drag-and-drop, no straightforward file transfer, you have to go via an Apple product, and not just some application they sell to you once, but an application they maintain ongoing involvement in via the app store and iTunes store. The iPhone platforms lock you in, while the N900 allows you the freedom to do whatever you want. The N900 is probably the closest thing to a phone that both Richard Stallman and Steve Wozniak would be happy to use as we are ever likely to see. It runs linux, you can code for it in a range of languages, there’s no wierd licencing deal going on, it plays with every existing communications stream out there; even in hardware, it uses industry-standard connectors for the headphones and microUSB ports and other subsystems. This phone is an object example in how to build a device that’s about giving the user a better tool to use; rather than building a better EULA to force the user to use your device; and it’s also an object lesson in why something that sounds as hippie-flower-power as ‘Freedom’ is actually a serious end-user issue.

In an Apple-v-Nokia comparison, the Nokia N900 kicks the iPhone’s backside. In design, the N900 does convergence far, far better. In ideology, the iPhone isn’t even playing the same game as the N900. In price, the N900 costs 25% less than the iPhone (and does more than it). Granted, there are implementation bugs, but comparing what the Nokia represents to what the iPhone represents, I’ll take the Nokia any day of the week. The N900 only lacks polish — the iPhone lacks substance and that’s a far more serious problem.

So why doesn’t Android kick the iPhone’s backside in this way? Because in terms of convergence, Android isn’t quite as far along as the N900 (yet). And because in terms of freedom, Android is just another walled garden but this time with a different name on the wall. Granted, Android’s walled garden is a better place than the iPhone’s but it’s still got walls. The N900 is just that little bit better at convergence and just that little bit better at being open. For example, you use standard Debian repositories on the N900, not an app store. Want to get your software on the N900 from a distribution point of view? You don’t have to go via Nokia. That’s a pretty fundamental difference, and so long as Nokia don’t try to alter that, they’ll have the better product from an end-user’s point of view.

So should you buy an N900? Will I be buying one?

Yes, in short. It’s far cheaper than the iPhone, it does more, it restricts me less, it’s more expandable and usable, and it makes my life a lot easier than any other smartphone or netbook would. It would reduce the amount of stuff I have to cart about the place with the E71 and do the jobs I need doing better than I can do them at the moment. I just need to find a local place to buy from so I can get a fast fix/replacement in the event that bug 6063 shows up again.

May 10

10 things about the Nokia N900

Nokia N900Well, the N900 I had on trial has since gone back to WOMWorld, and it’s time for a summary blog post. No look at a gadget would be complete without boiling the good and bad of it into an arbitrary number of points (and there’s already a few lists out there from Starry Hope and Prodigal Fool (who did two) amongst others), so here we go – 10 things I love about the N900 and 10 things I hate about it. But I also wanted to compare it to its most obvious competitor, the iPhone, and frankly the iPhone gets its backside kicked in the comparison, so you can also read the two fundamental reasons why the N900 is better than the iPhone and will remain so.

10 things I love about the Nokia N900

  1. It does everything. Up to now, I’ve carried the E71 as a phone, a cheap digital camera for a camera and my laptop to read emails and watch podcasts and video online. With the N900, on two seperate field trips, I didn’t need any of them, the N900 was more than good enough to do everything I needed. But this point is more than just the fact that the sensors and hardware on the N900 are so good, it’s also about software and design – the N900 is about the best example I’ve seen yet, on any device, of convergence. Open up the conversations app and it’s not just SMS messages you’re looking at, but messages from almost every other IM platform as well, all woven into one single tapestry. Voice communications are handled the same way – VoIP and ordinary telephone calls get handled by the Phone application natively and directly. This isn’t just an interesting software tweak; this is a unifying design principle, and it means that the Nokia N900 really isn’t a telephone — it’s the first real communications device. And on this metric, it blows the iPhone right out of the water. The iPhone doesn’t even come close to doing what the N900 does here. More on this later.
  2. You can program for it easily. Yes, with the E71 you can program for Symbian. With the iPhone or Android, you can write apps as well; but no platform out there gives you as much freedom and as much support and the ease of programming you get with the N900 and Python & PyMaemo. Yes, programming for the phone is an activity that only an incredibly small minority of consumers will ever do; but the fact is, the number of apps available for a phone is a major marketing point, so every little bit the manufacturers can do to make development of an app easier and better, will directly affect their profit figures every quarter. So it’s both nice to see Python on the N900 and sensible to see it there as well.
  3. Storage space. 32Gb internal plus a microSD card. That’s enough to carry around multimedia files, documents and more. I can drop podcasts galore onto it without worrying that I don’t have enough memory for storing contacts or SMS messages. More, I can carry a few microSD cards and swap them if I so wish, so in effect, there’s an absolutely massive amount of storage space available to me on the N900 (though granted, carrying several cards, even if they are tiny, is awkward — and having to take off the back of the phone to swap them is even more so).
  4. A wide range of codecs. Or, to put it in real-world terms, I can drag and drop a video file to the device and watch it immediately and directly. I don’t have to convert it to iPod format like I do with the iPod Touch or the iPhone or iPad; nor does it have to be of a set size or resolution. Nor, for that matter, do I need to sync it via iTunes to transfer files. I just take the file I’m watching on my desktop machine, copy it over like the N900 was any other USB flashdrive,  and then watch it natively on the N900 without any intermediate processing steps. Simple, simple freedom…
  5. Linux. Look, Apple might introduce proper multitasking eventually (I don’t care what they call that ‘feature’ in the latest iPhone SDK, but it is not multitasking and the fact that people are accepting it being called that says very bad things about the state of computer science degrees in the US and elsewhere — and I say they ‘might’ introduce it because I remember MacOS prior to OSX, and anyone who’d ship an OS that couldn’t do proper memory management might well never introduce multitasking even when everyone else has had it since the 1970s). Android has multitasking now, and so does the N900, and once you have it, you won’t want to give it up (and why should you?).  But more than that, linux is a familiar development and working environment, with widespread support — and if you can have it on your communications device as well as your desktop, why on earth would you want it any other way?
  6. Industry standard connectors. Seriously, we have electrical standards for a reason. The fact that it’s taken this long to get phones using a proper size headphones socket (and USB and all the rest) is a bit shocking; but at least they’re finally being used.
  7. On-board hardware. GPS, FM receiver, FM transmitter, accelerometer, touchscreen, forward and rearward facing cameras, physical keyboard – the number of sensors and input devices on the N900 is excellent and pretty much comprehensive. If there’s  a sensor out there that the N900 doesn’t have, it’s not a terribly important one at the moment. And that gives the platform an enormous flexibility when combined with the ease with which it can be developed for. Again, this is convergence as a design theme coming to the fore (this time in hardware) – the N900 really is aimed at being the one box you can carry to replace every other electronic gizmo you carry at the moment.
  8. The camera. Granted, this is sortof covered by the point above, but the camera really is so outstanding that it deserves to be a point of its own. Once, a decent camera wasn’t part of the list of things I wanted or needed in a phone; but I’ve since found it can be invaluable for work because it lets me archive whiteboard sessions. And the N900 camera is the best I have ever come across in a phone. Maybe the N8 has more megapixels, but that doesn’t matter. Megapixels aren’t really a good indicator of image quality; and while all the happy reviews of its camera indicate that the N8 is a decent design, I would guess you would never tell the difference between the N900 and the N8 cameras for the kind of photos most people will take with them. And the N900 is as good as, if not better than, the dedicated digital camera I was carrying about with me. I don’t know what else you can say about a phone camera when it gets to be that good.
  9. Nokia’s web browser. Forget the iPhone’s browser, forget the symbian browser, in fact forget all the mobile browsers out there at the moment. The N900’s browser is (and is accepted as) the single best mobile web browsing experience available on the market at the moment, bar none. Given that much of what we do in our day-to-day work is done on the web (from the ubiquitous gmail to the more esoteric web apps), that’s of vital importance to anything trying to be a mobile communications device, and Nokia has delivered on this very well indeed.
  10. Price. It’s better value for money than anything else in its class. Yes, it costs around €500 and you can pick up an iPhone 3GS for far less on the high street; but not without a contract attached, which means your TCO (Total Cost of Ownership) runs far higher than that of the N900. Compare the prices for unlocked, SIM-free new smartphones against the N900 and the real story emerges. A SIM-free Nokia N900 goes for €542 (including VAT). From the same supplier, a SIM-free iPhone 3GS goes for €709, a SIM-free Nokia N97 goes for €459, a Palm Treo goes for €495, and a HTC Desire for €479 (that’s iPhone, Symbian, WebOS and Android for those curious about the choices). So the N900 is far more reasonable when comparing like for like amongst its peers (and the subsidised price of €290 from Vodafone shows that too). And with what it can do, it’s very good value for money. In fact, given that the N900 is a practical replacement for a netbook, it’s worth considering that €542 is towards the lower end of the price range for netbooks at the moment. (BTW, for our US readers, yes, your prices are much lower; but (a) the same points apply, and (b) by the time you buy the product in the US, ship it to Ireland, pay the various taxes and duties and customs charges and buy the european power supplies and whatever; well, it’s six of one and a half-dozen of the other).

10 things I hate about the Nokia N900

  1. Bug 6063. I love the N900, I think it’s a groundbreaking piece of design that beats the iPhone as a device – but bug 6063 kills it stone dead at a single stroke. Everything else about the N900 could be even more perfect than it is, Nokia could give them away for free to anyone who wanted one, and 6063 would still kill it dead. Bug 6063 manifests as total silence when you answer or make a call. You can’t hear anything, the person on the other end of the line can’t hear anything, and there’s no error message or hint that something’s wrong with the phone rather than the line. I actually tried calling someone several times before finding that it was the phone that was the problem, and that’s appallingly unacceptable. Equally, I lost several calls while fiddling about trying to find the hands-free headset and plug it into the phone and answer in time. That’s utterly unacceptable as well. Look, the N900 means I don’t have to carry several other tools. No need for a camera, a netbook, an FM radio, an MP3/4 player, etc, etc. It’s a great communications tool. But if I have to have a hands-free kit to use it as a phone, then, well, it fails. Completely and utterly, without hope of redemption. If this bug isn’t at the top of the Nokia tech team’s priority list right now, I’d be deeply worried.
  2. No physical shortcut keys. On the E71, you have four physical shortcut keys which let you launch a few apps with a physical button, and one of those will take you to the home screen (or desktop, if you want to call it that); and with the iPhone there’s just the one button, and it drops you back to the home screen. That’s an important UI design point on a handheld device, where the amount of time it takes to tick off the end user is a lot less than on a desktop platform, and where the time it takes to launch an app can be critical. The different requirements for mobile and desktop users from a UI perspective are reasonably well known; but maybe not well known enough. Still, given the flexibility of the platform, it should be possible to jury-rig something in software. The power button menu, perhaps – there’s already an app that alters the menu that brings up.
  3. The touchscreen. There’s been a fair bit of comment on the choice of a resistive instead of a capacitive touchscreen for the N900; and most of it seems to be accurate enough, unlike my (admittedly fat) fingers when using it. It does give a distinctly clunky feel to the device when you press an onscreen button, and nothing happens (especially so when you hear the click sound effect and feel the vibrate, which is a lovely feedback technique, but is let down horribly when the fingerpress isn’t actually accepted by the application). It works really well with the stylus, but the stylus is a rather double-edged sword (if you’ll ignore the really confusing mental image that conjures up). Using the stylus does give pixel-perfect accuracy; but it also means you’re using a stylus instead of your fingers, which slows things down, makes them feel clunky, and takes me personally right back to the Psion Series V. In this area, the iPhone has the N900 soundly trounced I’m afraid, but perhaps firmware upgrades can work a miracle here.
  4. Speed. Much as I hate to say it, the N900 was sluggish on a few occasions for me; though usually in terms of latency rather than throughput (ie. it’d take a while to fire something up, but it ran fine once it got going). Why this is so, I’m not sure. Maybe overclocking would fix this, or maybe it’s a software kink; either way, it really should be fixed before you open the box…
  5. Battery life. Try as I might, I couldn’t get a full day out of the N900 if I used it continually. I could use it as an MP4 player on a three-hour train run, then as a GPS to find the hotel, and could then read my emails after checking in; but then it was down to about 25% charge and it was time to recharge. Certainly, I could get a day’s light use from it off a single charge, and far more if I only ever used it as a phone; the problem here is that the N900 does so much that you’re going to use it more heavily than you would a normal phone. A bigger battery really is needed here…
  6. Marketing. Yes, it’s cheaper than anything that does as much as it does (if such a device existed, which I doubt it does). Yes, it does more than anything else out there. Yes, as an example of convergence in a mobile device, it kicks the iPhone from here to the wall (and in design, the iPhone’s strongest area). But no-one seems to have heard about it, and getting one is rather difficult and seems more expensive than getting any of its peers. If you want an N900 or own one, you’re probably a geek and therefore in a minority. Will the N900 be the new flagship for the business market, the demographic that could appreciate the communications convergence better than any other? I don’t see the marketing push to get that to happen. There’s a growing concern that the move from Maemo to Meego will leave the device effectively abandoned by Nokia – so why isn’t there a far stronger push than this one to counter that rumour and let everyone know that the N900 will be running Meego via an upcoming firmware release? Why, in short, aren’t we seeing the N900 pushed on every advertising channel out there? This is the best phone Nokia have on the market right now, the most innovative, and the only phone I can think of from any manufacturer that fundamentally kicks the iPhone’s backside; so why don’t I see this thing on offer from every mobile operator and in adverts from every billboard? Without that kind of push, without that kind of market, the N900’s long-term future isn’t as sound as it could be.
  7. Time. This is both a cause and an effect — the N900 is newer than the iPhone platform and therefore there are fewer apps written for it at the moment (a few hundred versus tens of thousands for the iPhone/iTouch/iPad). It’s not as widely known, it’s not as widely available and it’s fighting an uphill battle to get recognised in this particular market segment. And because it was late to market, it’s got a big fight on its hands, despite having the goods. And because of that cause, the effect is a question of time – namely, if it doesn’t do well in the market, how long will it be supported for? It’s the best device out there right now for what it does; if it suddenly becomes a Palm Pre with questions over support and longevity, that’s not good for its adopters.
  8. Lack of polish. Maybe it’s another effect of time, but the N900 just doesn’t feel polished. Yes, you can get it to do amazing things; but out of the box, it doesn’t do them. There are quirks. The PC Suite didn’t initally work with it (I’ve seen reports that that’s since been fixed). The gesture recognition, especially for the kinematic scrolling, wasn’t as flawless as it could have been. When your competitor for this market is Apple, you really can’t afford to skimp on the polish; and when you’re doing a better technical job than Apple, it’s a crying shame to skimp on it.
  9. It feels reactive, not proactive. Mostly, you see this with applications like Witter and others; but you do get the distinct impression, using the N900 day-to-day, that it does things when you poke it; and that’s not always what you want. For example, when using a Twitter client like Witter, I want it going off to twitter in the background and constantly updating and keeping track of things. Likewise with Gmail clients and other communications programmes. When it doesn’t do that, when it takes a user action to initiate such a check for new messages, it’s a design error. I get the reason for not checking gmail every five minutes automatically, but frankly there’s no point in saving battery life if you’re not going to use it to do what I want you to! Happily, this is a software issue only, and can be tweaked fairly easily.
  10. It’s only available in black. What? I needed ten points and there just isn’t that much that’s bad about it!

So, what’s the overall verdict? Should you buy one? Will I be buying one? Is it the best thing out there? Read on…

Mar 10

Smartphone data traffic eclipses Feature Phones but the iDevices are coming up fast…

Admob released their Mobile Metrics for February 2009-February 2010 a few days ago. The most interesting information there is well summarised in one graph:

Traffic Share by Handset Category, worldwide, from the Admob Mobile Metrics report February 2009 - February 2010

Traffic Share by Handset Category, worldwide, from the Admob Mobile Metrics report February 2009 - February 2010

Right there, in October last year, the smartphone finally eclipsed the feature phone. This is something that every data provider in the mobile sector has been screaming about for quite a while now – the upcoming mobile data ‘apocalypse’. A mere three or four smartphones can generate enough data to swamp an exchange from only a few years ago; the only reason networks like AT&T’s haven’t been falling over more often than they have been is a lot of fairly rapid work on the part of the technical teams in charge of the backhaul for their networks. But the rise in the demand for mobile data, as game-changing as it has been, is only just getting started, and this report points that out.

Ignore for a moment the swapping of places between the smartphone and the feature phone — look at the growth rates of demand for smartphones and the third category of device – the mobile internet device (currently this is predominantly – ie. 93% – the iPod Touch). This category’s demand for data from the Mobile Network Operators has seen growth of almost 400% compared to the 193% of smartphones. But surely that has to top out, right? What could possibly maintain that level of growth?


Yup. When the iPad debuts, it’s going to be in this sector. And it’s a content consumption device almost by default – newspapers, youtube, you name it. Granted, only the more expensive model has 3G, but you know that’s not going to last – Apple has a pattern with their hardware which tells us that however slick the iPad is today, it’s only going to be refined and become more compelling as a device. And meanwhile the iPad clones like the JooJoo which will get to customers even before the iPad, will only add to the increase in growth rate that the iPad is going to drive.

And LTE isn’t going to save things. Ericsson’s latest figures indicate a 1000-fold increase in over-the-air capacity is needed and LTE will only offer around a 10-fold increase. To make up the 1000-fold, plans include introducing LTE in combination with taking over more spectrum, building nearly ten times as many basestations for cell towers as exist today, and three or four other impossible things before breakfast. And even if the MNOs can pull all that off, you still have to have backhaul to attach to that over-the-air network. But it cost $16 billion for last year’s backhaul in the US alone.

The pressure just got turned up a notch on the data teams in MNOs…