The Nokia N9 is, without doubt, one of the most fascinating phones of the last few years. The tale of its development and launch interweaves almost all the multivariate strands of the Nokia narrative. It is simultaneously the last big hurrah for the Nokia of old and the first showing of what the new Nokia, steered by Stephen Elop, is capable of. Much like the N8 and E7 that came before it, the N9 features an industrial design that sets it apart from the carbon copy smartphone crowd and marks it out as an unmistakeable Nokia product. Unlike its predecessors, however, the N9 shrugs off the aging, touchscreen-antagonistic Symbian operating system and moves to the long-awaited MeeGo Harmattan software.

As the first new Nokia smartphone to operate without the chains of legacy software, the N9 finally demonstrates some of that dormant software innovation from the labs in Espoo. I first saw it at Nokia’s introductory event in June of this year and, though my expectations were low, was blown away by how intuitive, responsive, and fluid the whole interface was. I wasn’t alone, either. Just about everyone who got a chance to play with the N9 remarked upon its superlative design and wondered aloud why Nokia was abandoning such a promising platform. Because, oh yes, Nokia had decided a few months earlier to transition its entire smartphone strategy to Microsoft’s Windows Phone OS and consign MeeGo to the status of a one-hit (i.e. the N9) wonder.

Today, the humble smartphone that made an unintentionally spectacular first impression is shipping in a limited release around the world and doing its level best not to disrupt Nokia’s big WP7 launch plans later in the month. That makes the N9 a niche product if you’re just after phone buying advice, but if you care about real advances in smartphone UI concepts and perhaps a hint of what we can expect in Nokia’s Windows Phones, you’ll want to read this review.