Nokia: no luck with Linux
by Mirko Dölle
For years, Nokia had been working on Linux as a future operating system for its smartphones and mobile devices. Then, the firm did an about-face and chose Windows Phone. Having had no luck with the penguin, the recent release of the N9 smartphone marks the end of an era.
In 2005, Nokia was a pioneer when it produced the 770 Internet Tablet: the first mobile device in its regular product portfolio with a Linux operating system. The unit was a small 5.5 by 3.1 inch tablet computer that would just fit into your trouser pocket; the touchscreen had a sufficiently large diagonal of just over four inches, with a resolution of 800 by 480 – quite high at the time. Linux developers who bought the 770 Internet Tablet, which normally cost €350, received a €250 discount with no strings attached.
Nokia made the offer because it owed the Linux community so much. As Nokia's open source head Dr. Ari Jaaksi explained, one reason the product development cycle was so short was because the Linux kernel could be easily ported to the 770's hardware. Only a few graphics drivers for some components used in the Internet Tablet still had to be written, and Nokia left that task up to the kernel developers. As a result, the Linux community could more easily port the kernel to other embedded devices, such as Texas Instruments' BeagleBoard which used the same OMAP-SoC as Nokia’s Internet Tablet.
Nokia also created the Maemo community, which developed software for the Internet Tablet. A complete SDK was provided for application development along with new versions of the operating system for Internet Tablets. In the process, Nokia gave the Maemo developers a lot of leeway – more than the developers for iOS and Android get.
But the success of the Internet Tablet was short-lived. Nokia failed to add a GSM module to its successors, the N800 and N810, which would have turned the mini Internet Tablets into fully-fledged smartphones and provided them with mobile internet on the go. As a result, you needed a smartphone or a mobile phone to use an Internet Tablet on the road, so the latter never replaced the former.
Nokia's competition saw the opportunity and came up with smartphones that you could not only make calls with, but that you could also use to surf and send emails. And of course, the launch of Apple's iPhone in mid-2007 thoroughly shook up the market. Now, nobody wanted to have to have a second device to surf with: the smartphone should be able to do that itself.
At the time, Nokia had just produced its N800, a device that was only slightly bigger than the iPhone and only lacked a GSM module. The operating system was quite mature, and it had the most important applications, the only ones missing being typical telephone and SMS apps.
But Nokia took another two years before it produced the N900, its first tablet with integrated GSM and 3G/UMTS. By that time, Apple had already produced the second generation iPhone, and Android smartphones were already taking over the rest of the smartphone market. At two centimetres, the N900 was also nearly twice as thick as an iPhone.
Not until the recently released N9, powered by MeeGo, did Nokia once again come up with a device that could compete with the iPhone and current Android smartphones. But the fate of the N9 had already been decided, for Nokia saw no future for Linux in its mobile phone division. It had switched to Microsoft for its mobile OS before the N9 had even been completed, and Nokia will now be trying its luck with Windows Phone instead of the penguin.
It's a shame, because the Linux and open source community is not the cause of Nokia's problems, but, at the same time, Nokia can't expect to get any financial support from the community.
- Nokia and open source – a trial by fire, a feature from The H.