N900 – Suggests an opportunity – Still missing the right metaphor to grab attention.

September 4, 2009

in Mobility

I’m reading Om and he’s been really down on Nokia recently and I’ve not exactly been a fanboy. Still there’s one new mobile device I am itching to try. Last week Nokia announced the N900 their first Maemo Touch Screen device. At IdeasCamp over the weekend I had it demoed to me. I won’t say by who… although he’s very knowledgeable about the product. He had the spiel down pat too. All the things it is (PC-like experience) and isn’t. That’s great  but let’s skip the words for I’m generally rapidly jaded by such commentary.

So why do I want an N900…??? What intrigues me (about the N900) way more than the N97 (which I’m still using)? Simple. The claim that the N900 provides a fully featured “firefox” browser. I asked specifically if I could use Firefox plug-ins like Delicious, Scribefire, WebDeveloper, Firebug, Greasemonkey etc. The answer was “YES”!  That’s a huge plus!

I will also want to know … when I set it up for the first time…. Does it sync with my FireFox experience? For me this is a defining question – as part of the user experience. Will it grab Firefox tools I already have installed? (I suspect not!)  Separately can I sync my gMail, Google address book and calendar with it? Will this all sync back to my mac with iSynch and MultiMedia transfer? Actually does any of this matter if all my calls are initiated from GoogleVoice? Must I do this via OVI? I hope not.

It is the initial start-up experience that really matters. This is not a phone and not a computer. All these device types require some form of personalization when you start them up for the first time. That will tell me much more about the device, the direction Nokia has planned for it and its potential.

What else might I wish for? Where could the n900 take on iPhone?

  • It should work on changing the calling paradigm. Enable me to take real control of my CallerID and make it easy to share context before a call. Why? It should say more about my identity…. not just that I am an iPhone user. It’s the augmented social me that matters.
  • It should enable me to take my browsing experience anywhere and always be in synch no matter which device I access my browser on. Plus I want to share my browser with other users at anytime. eg Screen-sharing.
  • Will it enable private browsing? Will it enable different users to quickly log-in so I can switch users on it? As devices become more personal the “guest” or “child” account become really useful even if just to keep things separate or protect data. It would also open up the sharing opportunities.
  • It must effectively manage my multiple directory services including the social networks I belong to. Using those status based services must be integrated. Frankly I only have few update services and some more I might want to run in the background in future. WebApps/GPS enabled browser pages that are open would be interesting.
  • It should make my wallet disappear. That’s utility I will care about and I know Nokia is focused on.

The initial PR positioning statements leave me confused. I find it hard to understand why Nokia describes it as “delivers a PC-like experience on a handset-sized device“. That is so yesterday. If I was describing this product I’d consider terms like “the power of your cloud” or “may the source be with you”. These suggest a much more emotional direction. We’re too hung up on trying to define it as a genre when it is really “the power in your pocket”.  Worse from my perspective… taking its cues from desktop computing. What crock. This must be a mobile social device. It runs Linux too and almost no one has seen desktop computing on Linux. So why make Maemo reach for the desktop when it can be something altogether new? I need kids to say “I want Maemo!” and then go fishing.

There is another opportunity missed in the PR. “Mozilla-based browser technology”.  Come-on. Most people know it as Firefox. Frankly we know that iPhone’s have Safari and “Firefox” isn’t claimed. There are millions of people that love their Firefox and do everything in it. Most other mobile browser have been a disappointment. Now for the first time etc….  Add a guarantee that taking Firefox mobile is all you need and the message is half way there. As a partnership it is also desired. Firefox and Linux =?Maemo . When I read Ari he seems to put a similar slant on priorities. For a reality check you can also read this review.

I’m also not sure that “users” generally know the difference between an App and a widget. However, I’d consider positioning this device against widgets and the “power of your cloud”. The “your factor” is social and for this device to beat an iPhone it must be more social and make life easier rather than more complicated. Thus you don’t need a store if it is open and widget based. Start with iGoogle??? That also means anyone can create a store for it. That might be a smart move. What you want to network is the app we have in common. It should matter that the distribution of them is decentralized.

Browsing is the key!

Where the N900 must win is in the browsing experience. Right now I don’t know if it beats an iPhone in that regard. From the demo I still have some concerns. (eg grabbing the pointer – gesture). Watching the demo suggests that it doesn’t reach iPhone efficacy standards with multiple fingers doing things. I’d add a book reader to that experience comparison. My iPhone today is my Kindle and daily newspaper. Will I say that about the N900. Will I say N900 navigation is better or easier? When I get one I suspect the trade-offs to be less clear. Eg I don’t really care that it has a keyboard…

Some more questions.
1. How could it compete vs a Blackberry solution in the Enterprise? Particularly re email, contacts etc. Security.
2. What makes it a unique app platform? What would spur new innovation as a result of this device? Does the browsing focus overturn the current “store” paradigm and create a better market? Why not focus on decentralizing the market and making payment effective and easy?
3. Do simultaneous applications matter?

Nokia – ShowPressRelease

Running on the new Maemo 5 software, the Nokia N900 empowers users to have dozens of application windows open and running simultaneously while taking full advantage of the cellular features, touch screen and QWERTY keyboard.

Without research I’m really not sure how important this is on a mobile device. While important to communications eg Skype or SIP in the background or Facebook + Twitter accounts in sync with real-time updates. However for the majority of the apps real-time isn’t that important.  From my perspective flicking the screen isn’t that different to pointing to the app you want to return to. Response on the iPhone generally isn’t a huge issue.

I suspect the language and metaphors around the n900 need work for this device to really catch on. Here’s another PR example. “Panoramic desktop”, this is a little like “spaces” on a mac but in a line and I belive limited to four screens. The problem is the “desktop” association. The word should relate to “flow” or lifestreams. While the device is similar to many it also is different. Yet, by contrast to the PRE launch which talked vs the iPhone there is no language here that does that or creates powerful metaphors so others make the comparison.

The next example “no matter how many web tasks…” relates to running applications in the background. The issue is real-time and responsiveness. Eg this is a living tool or life tool (to borrow from another one of Nokia’s projects).  Too bad the N900 has an on / off button. They should have eliminated it. A couple of shakes should do. Devices like this shouldn’t really turn off although they should work in the background when you want them too.

I’m left with too many questions without a detailed trial. The N900 adds a phone unlike the previous N800 / N810 devices. Some questions will be answered by using it. Others by observation. Still I’m disappointed that the one device that brings a really new and different operating system into play stumbles in defining itself. That’s probably Nokia’s own hangup. Better not to describe things in terms of other products. Rather to tell me stories about how people use it. For me it is not a netbook and certainly not a desktop. The simplest way to use it may be to do everything in a browser… just like my mother might – because then she doesn’t have to master any other programs or anything new. Fact is…. the N900 may also be the best GOOGLE PHONE yet without ever needing the Android operating system.

So beyond the browser… how good it it really? Is it trying to do too much? If a dumbed down version was launched would it be browser only and simply do away with everything – just launching with the browser and multiple accounts and use GoogleVoice? In fact how will GoogleVoice work with this? It would seem perfect!

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