The Evolution of Maemo: Let's not go mad! :-)

Published by Tzer2 at 0:32 UTC, September 3rd 2009

On the face of it the N900 has been a huge success so far: it's had lots of positive stuff written about it, the site logged literally millions of visitors in its first couple of hours, and even some of Nokia's most ardent critics are expressing admiration for the device.

However, the fact remains that the device hasn't been released yet. As far as we know no one has had a go on a production model so far, only prototypes. We have no idea how reliable the launch firmware and hardware will be or whether any production glitches will appear (and being realistic, production glitches are virtually unavoidable in devices that sell by the million).

Added to this is Nokia's gradual approach to product design: they don't tear up the old when coming up with something new, they evolve it. Every product Nokia makes has ancestors, and every successful Nokia product has descendents. In other words if you want to see a Nokia feature at its best it's usually several generations down the line when they've had a chance to respond to feedback from previous versions. The original Nokia/Ovi Maps 1.0 application was a mess, but version 3.0 is much more powerful and much easier to use.

Given Nokia's emphasis on evolutionary product development, should we perhaps restrain our expectations of the N900 as it's the very first Maemo 5 device and the very first Maemo smartphone?


Nokia 7700 and Nokia 7710

Missing Links: The Symbian Series 90-based Nokia 7700 and 7710 from 2004 were Nokia's first touchscreen smartphones, and their interface was partially reused in the first versions of Maemo.


The N900 is not the first Maemo device...

The N900 hasn't appeared out of the blue, it's a product that was shaped by four years of feedback from Nokia 770, N800 and N810 users. Maemo 5 is likewise based on the requests and suggestions from people who used Maemo 2, 3 and 4 (or OS2005, OS2006, OS2007 and OS2008 as they were more commonly known).

This is perhaps why the N900 has received such good coverage, because the original Maemo devices were fairly niche items due to their lack of telephony support. As relatively few people used the original Maemo devices, not many people noticed their steady growth from experimental project to semi-polished consumer devices, and when the latest iteration in the form of Maemo 5 was announced it took a lot of technology fans by surprise.

In short, people new to Maemo are impressed by Maemo 5 because it appears to come out of nowhere. But the truth is that Nokia's managed to make it work well precisely because it DIDN'T come out of nowhere, it came out of many years of device releases, OS releases and user feedback.


...but it is the first Maemo smartphone

However, the N900 definitely is the first Maemo device to have mobile telephony. Although older Maemo devices could connect to the internet through Bluetooth phones, they had no cellular radio of their own and they could not handle conventional phone calls (though they did manage VOIP calls quite well).

The first murmurs of discontent with the N900 are centred round its apparent requirement for the user to hold the device horizontally for most functions, which goes against the one-handed user philosophy that has dominated almost all of Nokia's other phone models. Part of the reason the N-Gage phone failed commercially was its requirement for two hands to operate its menus, and one-handed operation is perhaps part of the reason the narrow-screened Nokia 5800 has sold so well in comparison to other touchscreen phones.

So there are already some areas on Maemo 5 that possibly need working on, and that's before we've had a chance to use one properly. Anyone expecting perfection is bound to be disappointed.


Perpetual Development

However, going by Nokia's track record over the past four years they will learn from the N900 and Maemo 5 too, and will use this data in designing whatever comes next. The development process never stops, and indeed it should never stop because the world changes constantly. People are willing to live with quirks in first iterations of a feature, as long as those quirks are ironed out in future versions. Manufacturers can keep their customers happy by making sure they act upon feedback.

The danger is when the hype overtakes the actual abilities of the product, because then you're just setting people up for disappointment. The two key things for manufacturers are management of expectations and learning from past mistakes. If they do these two things well then their products can live up to the hype, and that means satisfied end users.


Evolution of Maemo

The Ascent of Maemo...


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