Maemo 5, N900 Centerpiece Maemo Summit 2009


Nokia played host to 400 developers, enthusiasts, and smartphone power users over the October 9-11 weekend at its Maemo Summit in Amsterdam. Maemo is Nokia’s handheld Linux distribution, available since 2005 on the company’s Internet Tablet line: the 770, N800, and N810. This year’s summit centered around two milestones–the release of Maemo 5, and the debut of Nokia’s N900, the highly-anticipated successor to the tablet line that adds cell phone functionality, potentially putting a portable Linux system in the hands of smartphone customers worldwide.

The Summit was held at WesterGasFabriek, a multi-building convention center in central Amsterdam that was converted to its present use from a 19th Century natural gas factory. The three days of the event featured sessions on using Maemo, developing applications on Maemo, and detailing the design and development process used in the new release. The developer sessions were split between working with Maemo 5 and planning for the 2010 debut of Maemo 6, which will involve a toolkit switch to the now Nokia-owned Qt framework.

Friday started off with a surprise, as Nokia distributed 300 pre-production model N900 phones running Maemo 5 to the attendees, for a six-month loan period. For the remainder of the weekend, virtually all speakers held an N900 as they gave their presentations, demoing applications live from the stage. Similarly, the audience was right in step with the presentation, as attendees installed and tested components and apps as they learned about the system. Many of the projects featured pushed out updates during the conference itself–one of the benefits of being able to work with the system at the center of the event, not merely hear about it.

Building the Maemo User Experience

Several key Nokia executives gave keynote talks, notably Vice President of Maemo Devices Ari Jaaksi. The other keynote speakers were the Linux Foundation’s Jim Zemlin, who addressed Linux’s growing role in the mobile device landscape, and Ton Roosendaal of the Blender Foundation, who spoke about his project’s experience starting out under the governance of a commercial entity and growing into a sustainable volunteer-driven user and developer community, much as the Maemo community is attempting.

The parallels are not perfect, of course–the Maemo user experience and core application set is still developed by Nokia, and a few prominent portions of that work will remain closed source. Jaaksi commented on that topic both in his keynote and in an interview session with the Community Council’s Alan Bruce. Nokia believes it must retain tight control over the user interface layer, he said, in order to sell Maemo-powered devices like the N900 as commercial products that compete in an aggressive marketplace. On the other hand, one thing Nokia’s team can do is provide the months of rigorous quality assurance and testing required before deploying a consumer-oriented product–both processes that the company is well-versed in, but that the upstream open source projects often cannot or do not tackle.

Still, Jaaksi emphasized that Nokia was committed to making as much of Maemo open source as possible, and to working with the upstream projects it is built on–which he estimated constitute 80 percent of Maemo code. At the start of the Maemo initiative in 2005 (“before Maemo was cool,” as Jaaksi put it), the openness of the platform troubled some at Nokia. Now, he said, if someone proposes keeping a component closed, management asks for a justification. The top levels of the company have seen, through Maemo, that working with the Linux and open source community is “the only future safeguard that we have;” because in the long term, it will produce the healthiest platform on which to build successful products.

Discovering Maemo 5

Much of the rest of the weekend was dedicated to exploring Maemo 5, from its core applications, to its user interface, to key third-party application projects. Some of the talks described the design process and decisions that went into Maemo 5, but others were more practical. The system uses a large number of open source components as reusable plugins–for instance, the instant messaging and Voice-over-IP (VoIP) apps use Telepathy and share access to the common address book. Third-party developers can reuse these components in their own work, shortening and simplifying development and helping to ensure a more consistent user experience.

As it did with the current release, Nokia is getting a head start educating and training developers for the changes coming in Maemo 6, which should be released some time in 2010. Maemo 6 will add Qt as a core library, and the Nokia applications will be rewritten to use it, but there are other scheduled changes as well. One is a security framework with which application developers can choose to use protected storage and a “trusted execution environment.” However, Nokia made it clear that such security measures were optional, and would be provided only when the user chooses to boot his or her device in the “trusted” mode. Users can choose not to opt-in to the protected mode, but run in a “free” mode that ignores the protected apps.

Such security measures are likely to appeal only to commercial content vendors for use in their own specialized apps, so the system may not affect open source developers at all. Other updates are more pressing, such as multi-touch support, full OpenGL ES acceleration, a built-in UPnP media server, and a localization framework for use by the Maemo community around the globe.

The N900 goes on sale in late October. Based on the attendance and interest in the platform on exhibit during Maemo Summit, when the phone reaches consumer hands it will have a healthy application ecosystem and community to support it.