A Not So Easy Decision
I ordered a Nokia N900 from Amazon today. I've been on the fence about buying one. I bought the first of Nokia's "Internet Tablet" line, the 770 when it first came out. I later bought the N800 when it came out but skipped the N810 opting rather for the iPhone and then the Nokia E71. In some ways, then, it wasn't a hard decision to buy the N900. But it wasn't a layup either.
Having owned both the 770 and N800 I had an idea what the devices would be capable of — but also their likely limitations.
One of the things I liked about the Maemo platform from the beginning was its openness. Nokia based it on Linux which isn't a bad start. Those who know me or read my site know I prefer OpenBSD but if the choice is between having access via the GPL or no access at all, I'll take GPL access.
I also liked the emphasis on generic internet access. Coming from Nokia many were surprised the device had no phone capabilities, at least no traditional phone capabilities. It could be used as a voice-over-ip (VOIP) phone but had no GSM access.
But that makes a lot of sense. Traditional radio, packet-switched and plain-old-telephone (POTS) service is going away. It's all going to be interent someday. Nokia were using the 770 and Maemo platform to test the waters and get in front of, or at least catch, the wave. To a degree they succeeded.
Nokia's success with the 770 wasn't in creating a market-defining device (as Apple would with the iPhone). Their success was in laying the foundation for shifting a huge company tied to the cellular market to the emerging market. Nokia also succeeded in getting the geeks.
For all its coolness and polish Apple's iPhone isn't a geek's geek toy. It's a great phone. It's a great platform for people who want pre-packaged "it just works" technology but for tinkerers, for geeks the iPhone quickly loses appeal. Not only does not always do what geeks want it to but it's so locked down they can't easily add the features they want, at least not without "jailbreaking" the device.
It's not that geeks are opposed to hacking around hardware or software limitations. But why do so when you can start with a system that embraces the hacker ethos?
That's what Nokia got right.
What Nokia didn't get so right was their insistence that the device is not a PDA. We all agreed. The 770 was not a PDA but that doesn't mean it can't have PDA functions. A calendar and address book that could sync with desktop equivalents would have made the device handier for a lot of interested users. More importantly the 770 needed a really good email client, a client that could connect to imap and Exchange.
The hardware was also a bit anemic. The original 770 would often pause under the load of browsing the web. The N800 had trouble still with video.
Both the 770 and the N800 had software-only keyboards. The N810 improved on this by adding a slide-up screen that revealed a usable four-row keyboard. There was also a Wi-Max enabled version of the N810 which, had Wi-Max taken off, might have obviated the need for the N900 or at least the N900 we know today with it's built-in GSM radio.
For many people the lack of always-available internet rendered the "Internet Tablets" a hobbyist device at best and a curiosity at worst. I fell into the first camp. I really wanted the tablet-devices to succeed for me but they just didn't. I didn't want to carry both a phone and a tablet. Add to that the slow-speed of Bluetooth internet access and the device spent more time sitting in a desk than with me.
The size of the devices also impacted their appeal, at least for me. The 770 and N800 were about the same size. While I liked the hard case with it's magnetic switch, it was too big to tote around. Perhaps had I been willing to carry it in my backpack or to wear cargo pants with a large pocket it might have worked. But the former meant the device wasn't always with me when I wanted it and the latter wasn't a work option.
The N810 improved on the size while having the bonus of a real keyboard. I couldn't type very quickly or more importantly, accurately with the on-screen keyboard on either the 770 or N800. While I didn't care for the lack of tactical feedback of either the Nokia or the Apple on-screen keyboards, I could at least type at a normal speed on an iPhone. The Nokia's were too error prone and poorly laid out to be effective. It also obscured the entire screen when in use.
I never owned the N810 but I did test-drive a few models at the local stores. I almost laid out the cash for one. The combination of physical keyboard, peppier processor and smaller size almost made it perfect but the lack of always-available high-speed internet stopped me. Wi-Max wasn't really availble in Houston and didn't appear to be coming any time soon. Besides, I already had an iPhone and was still debating the merits of Apple's new technology.
No Best Solution
I suffered along with an iPhone for some 6 months. I had been a "Day One" purchaser, standing in line at an AT&T store. I bought the last of the hidesouly over-priced 16 GB models available at my local store. Like most people I was blown away by the fit and finish, the polish of the OS, the integration with my calendar and contacts and most of all, the stunning web browser with an always-available connection to the internet.
I liked the iPhone for the most part. I wasn't happy about leaving T-Mobile for a company that appeared (and continues to appear) to be giving the government unfettered access to customer data. I also was growing in disatisfaction with the on-screen keyboard. Yes, it was significantly better than the keyboard on Nokia's Maemo devices but it was still error prone.
I moved back to T-Mobile and bought a Blackberry Curve. It had almost everything I could want: physical keyboard, lots of applications, always-on internet access, good email support (no html email). It even had a kind of voice-over-ip (UMA) that would allow you to make calls that weren't charged against your monthly minutes. The Blackberry Curve was all-in-all a pretty good phone. Except….
Everything you do on the Blackberry is mediated by Research In Motion (RIM) servers. Want to get email from another imap server? RIM actually get the data for you and send it. Want to browse the internet? It goes through RIM servers. Want to do anything? RIM are part of it. And it's more expensive. A non-RIM data plans is usually $10 – $20 cheaper per month.
At that point I swore off proprietary systems. I wanted a phone that could use the unfettered internet and open protocols to access my data.
Enter the E71
About the time my dissatisfaction with RIM reached it's crescendo Nokia released the E71. The E71 is a gorgeous phone. To this day it's the only other device apart from my original Palm V that I've really appreciated from an engineering and build-quality perspective. Like the Blackberry Curve it's a candybar phone with a physical keyboard. Unlike the Curve, it feels solid and it's thin. Like the Palm V, I have no hesitation carrying the E71 in my hip (back) pocket. I frequently leave it in my hip pocket while seated.
I mentioned the solid feel. That comes from being thin, having lots of metal and being compromised mostly of a huge 1750 ma/h battery. If there's anything the E71 gets right, and there's lots, it's battery life. It can go for days under normal use and won't die even under extreme use. I went to South by Southwest (SxSW) this past March and took the E71 with me. While all my friends with iPods and G1s were running out of battery life around 11 or 12 at night, my E71 usually showed at leats half the battery still available.
The E71 isn't without it's limitations. Email on Nokia devices is pretty poor. I tried an N95 for a brief period in between the Curve and E71 and so far my conclusion is Nokia don't care about effective imap-based email on Symbian. And despite being based on Webkit, the browser on the E71 is mostly mediocre. It works but it's nothing to brag about. And then there's the screen: beautiful but small. It's a limitation of candybar phones. To keep it light, thin and include a physical keyboard the E71 must have a small screen.
Why the N900
If it's not obvious by now, I'm particular about phone technology, or to be more precise, smartphone technology. And I should be. If I'm going to pay for services beyond basic inbound/outbound calling and text messaging the phone should work as close to the way I want as possible. So does the N900 have what it takes? Perhaps.
The N900 satisfies, or at least appears to satisfy, several of my wants in a smartphone:
- It has always-on, high-speed 3G internet on T-Mobile
- It has a physical keyboard
- It has a great web browser
- It's standards based
- It's extensible
- It's fairly small
- It can display e-books and PDFs
- It can play music
- It can play movies
Will I be happy with it? Probably not 100%. Maybe not at all. But I want to give it a try. Other than the Motorola Droid I see nothing else on the horizon that looks to be a contender.
I'll post my thoughts about the N900 when it arrives.
 I've since left AT&T and refuse to return until they stop.