Wait a second, what's going on? What the heck is Maemo?

Published by Tzer2 at 20:37 UTC, August 31st 2009

Some of you may be familiar with the Maemo platform from the Nokia N810, N800 or 770 internet tablets, but most N900 smartphone users are probably going to be encountering Maemo for the first time. If you're new to the Maemo project you might be rather confused by what's going on. What is Maemo anyway and what's happening to Symbian? We present a brief guide to these and other questions below...

Nokia N900 smartphone running Maemo 5

Wait wait wait... what is this Maemo? I thought Nokia used Symbian in their smartphones?

The Maemo platform, also known as Maemo Linux, has been developed by a community of professionals and volunteers over the past four years. For those of you who want the technical details, Maemo is based on the Debian Linux distribution but has been refined for use on pocket-sized touchscreen devices.

Most Nokia smartphones will continue to use the Symbian operating system, but some of Nokia's most expensive models will use Maemo instead.

There are four main reasons for this:

 - Some people want a smartPHONE, while others want a SMARTphone. Symbian smartphones will emphasise the phone side of things, while Maemo smartphones will emphasise the computing side of things (the "smartness"). Both Symbian and Maemo can handle calls and computing, they just vary in the balance they strike between these two functions.

 - Thanks to new production techniques Symbian can run on extremely low-price hardware, which means more people can afford to buy Symbian phones, but also means that Symbian has to operate on a lowest-common-denominator basis. For example most Symbian phones don't have specialised graphics hardware, so the Symbian interface cannot use hardware acceleration. However, all Maemo 5 devices do have specialised graphics hardware, so the Maemo 5 interface can use hardware acceleration.

 - Maemo is based on the same Linux kernel as many desktop computers, and it has been constructed in such a way that it's relatively easy to port desktop Linux software onto Maemo devices. That means that a potentially huge amount of desktop Linux applications could be released on Maemo with relatively little effort, and indeed many desktop Linux apps have already been released on older Maemo devices.

 - The current version of Maemo is much easier to program for than the current version of Symbian. This difference may disappear in the future as new Symbian versions appear with better development tools, but for now the Maemo platform is a lot more attractive to software developers.


So Nokia's abandoning Symbian then?

No. If Nokia puts Symbian on relatively cheap devices such as the upcoming 5230, that would probably mean manufacturing more Symbian phones than ever before because low-price phones sell a lot more than expensive ones. In that sense Symbian could become even more important to Nokia over the next few years.

But Symbian's ambition of being on the cutting edge of computing hardware is restricted by becoming a mass market platform. Because most Symbian phones are now so cheap, they don't have the powerful hardware required in order to run a cutting edge operating system.

Maemo devices will come with expensive and powerful mobile computing hardware as standard, so developers of software for Maemo can utilise the powerful hardware fully because they know all users will have it.


I thought Google's Android had become the standard for Linux on phones?

No. Although there's been a lot of talk about Android, actual sales of Android smartphones have been fairly low. The last quarter's figures showed about 3% of smartphone sales were Android, which is tiny compared to Nokia's smartphone market share of 44%.


So is Maemo a rip-off of the iPhone then?

No. Nokia's first Maemo device was released in 2005, Apple's first iPhone was released in 2007.

The N900 is the first Maemo smartphone, and it's the first device to run Maemo version 5, but it's not the first Maemo device.


Where can I find out more about Maemo?

These are the best starting points:

AAM's Unofficial Maemo FAQ - We've set up an unofficial Frequently Asked Questions list covering the main topics that come up in discussions of Maemo.

maemo.nokia.com - Nokia's official consumer site for the Maemo platform and the Nokia N900 smartphone

maemo.org - A semi-official community-run site for Maemo enthusiasts and developers

Maemo Talk - The forum on maemo.org

Maemo on Forum Nokia - Nokia's official developer site covering how to create software for the Maemo platform


Nokia N900 smartphone running Maemo 5

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