What Phone Was Right For Me?

Tricky lighting led to overexposure and noise in the dark areas – soon corrected by The GIMP

All the time I’ve been writing articles under the heading “What Phone Is Right For You?“, I have never confessed to what I actually use myself. Do I favour the Apple or the Blackberry, Windows or Androids?

None of the above. There was a reason I didn’t bring my own choice into it – the phone that’s right for me probably isn’t right for you. Or most anyone, it seems. Don’t get me wrong, it is an extraordinary piece of kit. But it sold in the hundreds of thousands at best, rather than the millions a hit mobile device needs.

Which is a shame, because it could have been the future.

That device is the Nokia N900 – less a phone really than a tiny PC with phone capabilities. Of course that can be said loosely of any smartphone, but it’s true of the N900 in spades. On this one you can have an actual desktop, and edit office-standard documents in powerful applications. Not bad for something you can carry around in your pocket.

Nokia achieved this with the help of the Open Source Software community – people who create free programs because they believe information technology should be free. Or just for the hell of it. OSS has brought us many great things, famously the Firefox browser of course, but also the free alternative to Windows and Mac OS called Linux.

The N900’s “Maemo” operating system is, like Ubuntu, based on the respected Debian¹ variant of Linux, so installing full-scale desktop applications is relatively straightforward. One great example: The GIMP², an Open Source alternative to Photoshop with all the image-editing power you could want. Thanks to this I was able to take, correct and upload the image above entirely on the phone.

And the usefulness only begins there. By hooking up a mouse and keyboard and using the TV-out as a monitor, I can have a desktop PC in any hotel room. Or indeed I can use the phone itself as a Bluetooth mouse and keyboard to control a PC from bed – which came in darn useful when I was ill – or control TVs and so on with its infra-red output. It’s versatility is matchless. Furthermore it excels as a media player, with powerful stereo speakers and a screen that wasn’t surpassed until the iPhone 4 came out.

English: Nokia N900 communicator/internet tabl...
The N900 with its keyboard open

Its greatest strength though has to be its browser. Nokia had been making specialised “Internet tablets”, portable Web browsing devices, as a semi-experimental sideline since 2005. The N900 just took that and added phone call abilities. Its browser therefore is proper Firefox, just with a finger-friendly interface, and brooks no ‘mobile view’ nonsense. It displays Web pages exactly as they’d appear on a desktop. With Flash, of course.

And though the phone aspect is a late addition, its integration is exemplary. Skype is just there – you can make and receive VoIP calls just as easily as ordinary ones. Similarly, IM services like Facebook and Google Chat integrate seamlessly with the phone’s text messaging. Contacts on different social networks can be merged into a single address book entry too. That’s just the way it should be.

So, what the hell went wrong? If this was such a paragon of smartphone virtue, why did no one buy it? Hopefully I’ll have the strength to face that sorry tale tomorrow.

  1. Poignant little story – Debian was named for its creator, Ian, and his girlfriend Deb – before they broke up. He’s going to have a hard time forgetting her now.
  2. The GIMP stands for The GNU2 Image Manipulation Package.
  3. GNU stands for GNU Is Not UNIX3. Recursive acronyms are kind of an OSS in-joke.
  4. Surprisingly, UNIX doesn’t stand for anything.
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9 thoughts on “What Phone Was Right For Me?

    1. Well it stands for something in the sense that it has a meaning, but it’s certainly not an acronym. More a play on words I suppose. It’s just that the tradition of spelling it in caps gives the impression it’s meant to be an acronym.

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  1. Almost all of this functionality can be replicated on the Motorola Droid Razr (I can’t speak for other Android smartphones). The only things I question are screen capabilities (I don’t know the brightness, screen type, or resolution of the Nokia N900) and I know the Droid is lacking an IR transmitter.

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    1. I doubt it could replicate them two years ago though…

      Yes Android has pretty much caught up now. My next phone will be the Galaxy Note (Watch out for the upcoming review). There are still some things I’ll miss though. In particular I know of no image editor for Android that has the power of The GIMP.

      You can run Linux applications on a lot of Android phones of course, which is very promising, but not without booting from a Linux image and so losing phone functionality. The N900 can take calls and run applications simultaneously, because it’s Linux all the way down.

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  2. I see that you have it covered, but UNIX is indeed a play on words on MULTICS.

    From the Wikipedia:
    “In 1970 Peter Neumann coined the project name Unics (UNiplexed Information and Computing Service) as a pun on Multics, (Multiplexing Information and Computer Services). Unics could eventually support multiple simultaneous users, and it was renamed Unix.”

    I think you might have confessed about being an N900 owner in some other place. It’s a very good smartphone, but sadly an evolutionary dead end, but not for many technical reasons (although I do think resistive screens are niche-only, and physical keyboards very debatable). It mostly was too little too late for Nokia (why they ended up on Microsoft’s leash), and also sheer politics by Intel with the whole Maemo/Meego non-support support fiasco.

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      1. Actually you’ve given me an idea… Intel’s role in all this is an aspect I’ve not emphasised at all, and I’m introducing guest bloggers now. Would you be interested in writing a guest post?

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