Smartphones are often described as “pocket computers” but, despite advances in usability and processing power, many fall short of providing a user experience comparable to a desktop or laptop computer’s.
Nokia’s new device aims to change that. The Finnish mobile-phone maker, the largest handset manufacturer in the world, has been losing market share to the likes of Apple and BlackBerry manufacturer Research in Motion, and recent efforts to develop cutting-edge, touch-screen devices have received a mixed reception from industry experts and consumers.
That’s why the launch of the company’s latest phone will be crucial: the Nokia N900, which goes on sale this month, is set to be the most powerful mobile phone on the market – a true pocket computer.
The device, which received rave reviews when it was demonstrated at a technology summit last month, has all the features we’ve come to expect from the modern smartphone: fast internet access, 3.5in touch-screen, plenty of storage, high-quality digital camera and access to an app store to download extra software, games and tools.
It also has a slide-out Qwerty keyboard, which is sure to divide opinion. Some users still favour a physical keyboard for quickly tapping out messages on the move; others believe touch-screen devices should rely on a virtual keyboard, as the iPhone does, and that adding a physical keyboard is an admission that the interface isn’t up to scratch.
Crucially, the phone will be turbocharged by high-calibre processors, but by far its most important element is the operating system, which promises a powerhouse performance that could put the iPhone to shame.
The N900 runs Maemo, a Linux-based operating system developed by Nokia that has been designed to bring many features of desktop computing to a mobile device. Nokia has previously used the software on its internet tablets, but the N900 will be the first mobile phone to use this slick platform.
As a result, users can create multiple “desktops” – separate home screens dedicated to, say, listening to music, or enabling them to contact friends with a single click – and switch between these desktops simply by skimming a finger across the screen. The device can run multiple applications simultaneously, enabling users to get instant notifications when they receive an email or instant message, and it offers a full web browser based on the same architecture as Mozilla’s Firefox browser. Users will also be able to download games and software from Nokia’s embryonic Ovi app store.
As with the Palm Pre, released last month, the N900 makes no distinction between the ways in which you choose to correspond: it will assemble communications into a single “thread” whether those conversations took place by phone, text, email or instant message.
“The philosophy behind Maemo was to find a way of bringing computer technology to a mobile device,” says Janne Heikkinen, director of product planning for Nokia. “We wanted to introduce a true internet experience in a pocketable form.”
Heikkinen believes the N900’s multitasking capabilities will go down especially well. “People always have multiple windows and programs open on their computer at home. When they browse the internet, they have multiple tabs open and switch between those. That is the sort of experience people now want on a mobile device. The user interface and architecture behind Maemo means that we can bring lots of new capabilities to users.”
He sees the device as sitting somewhere between a standard smartphone and a ultra-portable netbook computer, and says it is targeted at technology enthusiasts. “This will be the most powerful mobile device on the market, not just because of the technical merits, but because of how the user interface and overall architecture support multitasking and the other functions. We also see it as a very important innovation platform for developers.”
Industry experts, too, believe it could be a game changer. “Maemo will deliver the next generation of ‘computer-like’ experiences,” says Geoff Blaber, an analyst with CCS Insight. “The emphasis on rich visuals and multitasking is key. Multitasking will become increasingly important in a world where the phone is being used to access multiple functions, applications and services. It’s a challenge that Apple faces with the iPhone.”
Indeed, Apple’s engineers are likely to pay close attention to the N900. Despite the intuitive nature of the iPhone interface, its inability to run multiple applications simultaneously could become a problem as other mobile phone-makers continue to innovate.
Google’s operating system, Android, is also building up a head of steam, and is now available on a wide variety of well-designed, easy-to-use handsets that offer plenty of innovative features.
Although it remains to be seen how the N900 resonates with consumers, one thing is clear; the idea of truly having a computer in your pocket just moved a big step closer.