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Nokia's burning platform might have been a phoenix

Nokia's burning platform might have been a phoenix

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On June 14th, Nokia invited members of the press to see a "new market disrupting device" the next week at Nokia Connection in Singapore. On June 18th, the official @WeAreMeego Twitter account put out a not-so-cryptic message: "Rumours of my Death Have Been Greatly Exaggerated." A number of leaks followed, and the N9 began to surface. It's a next-gen MeeGo handset, the successor to 2009's N900 but with an entirely different form factor and a dramatically revised OS. @WeAreMeego confirmed the device with these words: "Welcome to the new school." A link to Nokia's vanity site for the N9 at did little to dispel the hype. Marko Ahtisaari, Nokia's design head, starts off a video with Apple-level hyperbole: "Every once in a while, a product comes along that changes our perception of how we use technology, and how natural it can feel."

Really, Nokia?

In February, Nokia CEO Stephen Elop lumped MeeGo in with Symbian as part of his company's "burning platform." He illustrated his assessment of the company with a story of a man who found himself on a burning oil platform and was faced with the prospect of burning to death or jumping 100 feet into the cold Atlantic. Elop argued in favor of jumping. While most Nokia watchers seem to agree about (or are at least resigned to) the inevitable death of Symbian, Elop's decision to steer away from Nokia's next-gen MeeGo OS doesn't feel like the inevitable or obvious decision at all.

The most entertaining forum-spread narrative is that Stephen Elop is a "saboteur" who has a major payoff in Kahoots Bux from Steve Ballmer in store for betraying Nokia to his former employer and picking Microsoft's Windows Phone 7 platform over Android or the homegrown MeeGo. After all, if Elop had to pick an icy ocean, did he have to pick the iciest ocean -- a brand new OS with only a few million devices on the market? I have a hard time believing the most dramatic of conspiracy theories, but a couple points do give me pause: A. Elop still owns a few million dollars of Microsoft stock (Nevermind. Elop sold his shares in February, right before the deal was announced, although some financial sites haven't been updated to reflect this); B. My pet theory that any device manufacturer who would choose Bing search over Google for a short-term payoff (part of the Nokia / Microsoft deal is that Nokia's Symbian devices would pick up Bing search as well) doesn't actually care about its customers.

But all that's really beside the point. Nokia has clearly chosen Windows Phone 7 and is hard at work on devices... so what on earth is going on with the N9 and the "burning" MeeGo platform it's been built on top of? Was it too far along for Stephen "Saboteur" Elop to kill off in exchange for a Steve Ballmer backrub? Is Nokia going to release more MeeGo devices alongside Windows Phone 7? Did Nokia give the N9 a high-profile launch in order to test the waters and make a superfinal decision on this platform's future? Are Steve Ballmer backrubs really worth the loss of your Canadian dignity and the death of Finnish pride, Elop? I have so many questions.

Before we figure out the future, however, let's rewind. In many ways, the N9 is a perfect example of everything that's been wrong with Nokia in the past half decade. By the time the phone hits the market, it will be about two years since the N900's launch in November of 2009. Nokia actually announced the "Harmattan" code name for its Maemo OS back in May of 2008, which promised Qt app support, and the N9 is the final fruition of that goal. Sure, they built an entirely new UI and the merged the platform with Intel's Moblin OS to form MeeGo along the way, but three years is a long time any way you slice it. Nokia has managed to even disappoint with its internals, picking a 1GHz ARM OMAP3 processor, a mere sequel to the N900's 600MHz OMAP3 processor, and the exact same PowerVR SGX350 GPU used in the N900 and the iPhone 3GS.

In other ways, the N9 is symbol of everything Nokia is actually capable of. The hardware design looks incredible, and it's astonishingly original given the supposed design limitations of the slab form factor. The OS has a strong design language of its own, many best-in-class features, and an exciting and simple new UI paradigm — the swipe:

Other features include built-in support (including merged contacts) for Twitter, Skype, and Facebook, fully-featured Maps (with 3D turn by turn directions), HTML5 browsing, and a pre-loaded copy of Galaxy on Fire 2 to show off MeeGo's 3D gaming prowess. All of this is underpinned by a beautifully intuitive multitasking UI that feels very refreshing after wading through a swamp of webOS knockoffs lately.

Underneath Nokia's Harmattan customizations is the wild, unknowable potential of MeeGo: an open source OS (in both development and release) built by Nokia and Intel, designed to run on phones, tablets and netbooks. A large uphill climb, to be sure, but if the vision is realized and truly great software results, Google's Android would lose its seat as the most "open" OS option on the market.

Ultimately, it's hard to put my finger on exactly why, but I want an N9. Maybe it's the romanticism of a dead-end platform (like the Foleo), maybe I just want to be different than everybody else, or maybe, just maybe, Nokia has something good and innovative on its hands.

Too bad the future is so terribly murky. Nokia laid off 7,000 employees in April from its Symbian and MeeGo divisions. Whatever scraps are left have been reformed into a skunkworks team called "New Disruptions" (which sounds a bit like a collegiate acapella group). Their job, according to Elop, is to "find that next big thing that blows away Apple, Android, and everything we're doing with Microsoft right now and makes it irrelevant—all of it." Elop says he's "taken off the handcuffs" by not requiring MeeGo to save Nokia over the next year.

But is this all PR spin? If these teams in their full strength couldn't manage to build next-gen operating systems in a timely and industry-challenging manner, how can they hope to do it less 7,000 of their colleagues? One of Elop's excuses for moving to Windows Phone 7 was to cut R&D costs so that Nokia's margins could be slimmer as it goes up against Asian phone manufacturers in the low-end market. It doesn't sound like a strategy for finding "that next big thing" — Apple and Google are spending billions on iOS and Android to turn their existing platforms into the next big thing.

On the flip side, we're supposed to believe Nokia can bring strong hardware chops and differentiation to Windows Phone 7, yet according to Elop the big hangup on MeeGo was that the current roadmap only allowed for three MeeGo-based releases by 2014. For a company that released hardware renders the very same day it announced its Windows Phone 7 partnership — not to mention launching an entire N950 handset alongside the N9 just for developer purposes — this just doesn't ring true to me.

But if hardware wasn't the hangup, what was? Maybe MeeGo is just a terrible operating system? Maybe it's unfit for consumer consumption? This all brings me back to my original line of questioning: what am I, as a consumer and journalist, supposed to take away from Nokia's messaging on the N9? Does it suck? Or is it the future?

Maybe the N9 just needed to hit the market with a nice and shiny launch to "prove" that MeeGo couldn't succeed in a big way. There are already conspiracy theorists claiming that Nokia will choke the production of the device so that it can't sell in big numbers. Perhaps Nokia just wanted another shiny showcase for its Qt platform — which will be coming to the "next billion" on top of Nokia's still-kicking Series 40 sub-smartphone OS.

Of course, the conspiracy theorists need not worry about supply problems: the N9 is destined for failure. Without a strong ecosystem, or a promise of future updates, there's little reason for anyone to buy the phone — MeeGo hackers only need apply. Even a "hardcore" user like myself is used to certain creature comforts, like my Audible / Kindle / Nook reading apps and my cloud-synced, brain-extending copy of Simplenote.

What I'd be even more worried about, if I were Nokia, is if some uninformed consumer accidentally buys this phone, thinking they'll be getting a truly competitive product from a respectable company, instead of a beautifully designed dead end.

You can't "experiment" with platforms, you have to support them with every fiber of your corporate being. The "swipe" UI is a great idea, and I'm sure Nokia's New Disruptions skunkworks can come up with plenty of other great ideas, but ultimately users are going to be best served by an OS that's available on the market, ferociously updated, and widely supported by hardware and software manufacturers. That OS, according to Nokia, is Windows Phone 7, and my best hope for seeing any of these (and future) innovations out of New Disruptions is for Nokia to fold them into Microsoft's OS. Hopefully "swipe" is first on that list.

Maybe this isn't the end for Nokia and MeeGo. Maybe those three devices Elop foresaw shipping for the platform by 2014 are still going to get built. Perhaps there's enough momentum behind the OS that a stripped-down "skunkworks" MeeGo team can still manage to put out polished consumer updates of the OS. I really doubt it, but I'm willing to dream those Finnish dreams.