November 3, 2009, 10:50 am
Nokia will ship its highly anticipated N900 smartphone this month, according to Reuters. Nokia's first Linux-based smartphone will use Clutter 3D user interface technology from the Moblin project.
The N900 is heir to Nokia's line of Linux-based Internet tablets, which included the 770, N800, and N810. With week-long standby times, and 5-8 hour battery life in constant use, these little tablets really showed what a mobile phone company could do, if it decided to build an open, Linux-based handheld computer.
The N900 is the first to include a cellular radio, though. As such, it is also the first Nokia smartphone to use Linux operating system technology. Over the long term, Linux may replace the Symbian-derived S60 OS used in current Nokia smartphones, according to many phone industry watchers.
I've been using the Nokia tablets ever since the 770, and it would be tough to resist the N900, did it not cost $650. That's about double the cost of earlier tablet models. And then, you still have to buy a cellular plan for it.
Other than the newly added cellular radio, the hardware spec appears only incrementally improved. In place of the N810's ARM11, there'll be a Cortex-A8 class processor, which adds "superscalar" execution, or the ability to batch-process multiple instructions, if they are short enough. At its highest clock rates, this processor is close in processing power to Pentium III-era chips, albeit ones integrating some rather powerful graphics hardware as well.
The Linux stack in the N900 (and in Nokia's earlier Linux tablets) is called "Maemo," a made-up word found to evoke no negative associations in focus groups of Northern Europeans, a Nokia executive told me a couple of years ago. The Maemo 5 stack to be used in the N900 appears to have key changes:
- A bigger role for Qt, the cross-platform framework Nokia acquired with Trolltech a couple of years ago. By supporting both S60 and N900, Qt could prove useful to developers wishing to target both the Linux-flavored Nokia smartphones of tomorrow, as well as the massive S60 installed base (Nokia is the global smartphone market leader, by a huge margin).
- More hardware-accelerated 3D graphics candy. I guess Apple has raised consumer expectations around that kind of thing. Nokia has duly tapped the open source Clutter libraries created by it's long-time UI development partner, OpenedHand, which was acquired by Intel.
- Obviously a new dialer app, but also portrait-mode views for the Hildon UI, and other key apps. The Nokia tablets have long supported VoIP apps like Ekiga and Skype, but each prior tablet has used a different and arguably only partially successful approach to phone ergonomics.
- Cloud apps. Blogging editors, storage backup utilities, photo service integration for the 5MP Carl Zeiss-lens CMOS camera, and so on.
Otherwise, the Maemo stack still uses DBus, and many parts of it look pretty familiar. Nokia's tablets have long set the standard for the (admittedly minuscule) market for Linux Internet tablets. So, our guess is that despite the "beta" nature of the Maemo 5 software to ship on the N900 initially, the device will set a pretty high standard for Linux OS stability and usability on the handheld form factor.
In other words, for developers working on phones and tablets that use the Intel(r) Architecture(tm), the N900 is the device to beat. At least initially, before taking on the iPhones, Blackberries, and Androids of the world.
The next few years are sure to be pretty exciting, with Nokia getting its Linux smartphone act together. Meanwhile, 32nm "Medfield" die-shrinks of Atom are sampling, while new Moorestown designs explicitly for phones and battery-powered mobile devices should arrive soon. At IDF last month, CEO Paul Otellini predicted Intel Atom(tm) powered phones by 2011.
Let the device and phone architecture wars begin!
Nokia's pre-order page for the N900 can be found here. There's also a product page, here. An article about mobile application design can be found here. More about Moorestown and Medfield can be found here. Lots more about Nokia's use of the Clutter libraries can be found in our previous coverage, here.