The future is coming ready-or-not

Nokia n900 review

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As I write this I’m rocketing across Belgium shortly to transit under the channel on the Eurostar train. I’m crossing a continent rich in history and conflict. But to be honest, it’s an antiseptic journey. Unfortunately, my laptop isn’t on-line, and without a connection it won’t relieve the boredom. Luckily my phone is online. It’s my phone that I’m using to stay connected to the Internet, making sure I’m not missing anything important and keeping me amused during the journey. With it I’m reading e-mail and RSS along with communicating through instant messaging.

As we move towards a world that is mobile and connected the phone is much closer to the type of computing experience I want than the traditional PC. Perhaps without realising it phones are becoming a very significant computing platform. We’re using an increasing number of them – billions of phones ship a year, millions of computers by contrast.  And as you know emerging areas of the world are very big on phones! Finally, smart phones are becoming very powerful, Moores law and all that.

So if you talk about pervasive computing, the incarnation we have of that today is the smart phone: it performs some set of computing tasks and it’s always available to me since I always carry it. Consequently, if you’re interested in what the future of computing looks like then it’s going to have a lot of the characteristics of the phone.

I recently got a Nokia n900 which has a lot of the characteristics that I think are important in a pervasive computing platform. First, for all that we love touch you need data entry and that means a keyboard of some form.  Second, if it’s pervasive then it better be well connected, because I move around a lot. If it’s an always-available computer then it has to be able to do more than one thing at a time, because I’m doing more than one thing at a time. Clearly, it has to have a wide range of applications and that includes full Web capability since lots of “applications” I access like Facebook are on the Web. And it has to be configurable, it’s my device and while it may be managed, I want to customise it.

So having set out my strawman it’s easy for me to conclude that the n900 ticks all those boxes. And it does, the N900 really is a good personal computing platform, it has a lot of the elements I listed. On the other hand, it’s not a very good phone!

OK, so I set the punch line up. Seriously though, if you just want a phone then you’re missing the point of the n900.  Yes, the voice quality is good, and the integration with contacts and conversations is very nice, the embedded usage of Skype and ability to use VOIP/Skype is very interesting.  But it has quirks as a pure phone, and anyway it’s noticeably large, heavy and the battery life borders on terrible.

As a mobile computing platform though it’s very cool. The more I use n900 the more impressed I am with the software package.  Maemo feels very well put together to me, it’s fast, looks good and the UI has some interesting innovations. Maemo is Open Source and Nokia have been working to develop a community around it for a few years. It’s still raw in parts but if it keeps on maturing and benefits from Open Source innovation then it’s going to be great.

Outside from the general user interface the software stack is also very strong. If you want something decent for e-mail then the n900 is a good choice. The native e-mail client handles IMAP very well, the wizards make it easy to set-up and the keyboard is fine – it’s actually better than a blackberry I tried recently, since push e-mail isn’t important to me. It’s got a fantastic full browser that can access heavy Javascript sites. If you use the new mobile Firefox browser then resource hungry sites like Gmail and Google reader are absolutely fine. It’s able to handle instant messaging over a range of different networks which makes for a feeling that you’re constantly in touch with people. The RSS reader is rubbish though, it should be taken outside and quietly shot – seriously no off-line mode!?

If you’re in the market for a new smart phone and you want something a little different, or you’re looking for something a bit more powerful and hackable than the other options out there then check out the N900.


Written by Steve George

January 31, 2010 at 13:05

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