July 8, 2008

Maemo 4.1 bring mail and packaging improvements to Nokia's Linux-based tablets

Author: Nathan Willis

Nokia released version 4.1 of it's Linux-based Internet Tablet platform Maemo last month. 4.1 is a minor update to the operating system, but it boasts two important features that answer long-held complaints: an improved open source email client, and migration to a package updating system more like that of a desktop Linux distribution.

Tablet owners can download the update for N800 and N810 devices by visiting tablets-dev.nokia.com. As with previous releases, a valid device ID is required to download a firmware image. Upgraders can make a backup of their settings onto one of their tablet's memory cards, including a list of installed applications, which can be automatically reinstalled following the update.

The end of flashing

The upgrade process involves flashing the new firmware over the device's existing installation, as it has since the debut of the Maemo-based tablets. But 4.1 is the last release to require such a headache. Future updates to individual system components will be made available as package upgrades, just as is done for user applications.

Re-flashing the tablet's firmware is not itself a difficult or dangerous task. The hassle is the time involved in reconfiguring the newly flashed device. Restoring files and settings from a memory card backup is rapid enough, but restoring third-party applications takes a considerable amount of time. My own upgrade to 4.1 on an N800 tablet took less than five minutes for data and configuration, but more than 45 minutes to fetch, install, and configure 31 additional applications from different repositories.

In addition to the convenience factor, per-package updates will allow Nokia to roll out new apps and services individually, rather than rolling an entire new release once every 12 months. That is undoubtedly better for the company, and ultimately better for users as well.

Email for the masses

The other major improvement in Maemo 4.1 is the new email client Modest, based on Philip van Hoof's Tinymail framework, designed for embedded and low-resource devices. It supports SMTP, POP, and IMAP, all with encryption, as well as the push email technique known as IMAP-IDLE.

Modest has been available as a beta since December 2007, and is reputed to be much faster than the old email client it replaces, especially when it comes to IMAP performance. In my own tests, that reputation is well-deserved. I set up several IMAP accounts, and Modest fetched message headers and folder names nearly instantaneously, including messages on a catch-all Gmail account that receives hundreds of messages daily. Modest was even faster than the Gmail Web app itself.

Despite the name, Modest is full-featured, supporting multiple accounts, per-account signatures, and other niceties frequently absent from embedded device email apps. I also appreciate the ability to specify different SMTP servers based on differing active network connections -- your personal level of paranoia may lead you to choose different servers when on a secured or unsecured network, but corporate users with IT policies to consider are the real winners here.

Looking forward: the tablet is the desktop

There are small changes in Maemo 4.1 as well, including browser speed-ups and OpenSSL fixes, but the greatly improved email client and adoption of a per-package system updating framework outshine the incidental bug fixes and version bumps.

The 4.1 update may not pack as many new features as 4.0 or 3.0, but it is important to consider it in another light: as part of the platform's progression from a closed, consumer-electronics-like device to a system more closely resembling any other Linux distribution.

Since Maemo's inception, the team at Nokia has slowly replaced closed components with free software alternatives, has made it easier for users to install "unapproved" applications, has opened up shell and root access, and now is making the system upgrade process function like a traditional desktop distro, not a cell phone. With all of the recentacquisitions Nokia has made in both the open source and handheld device realm, it will be interesting to see where it takes Maemo from here.

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