N9

There’s something tantalizing, almost irresistible about the new Nokia N9 to me. Its polished exterior and unique look in cheery colors is unmistakably Nokia and so very distinct from all the Korean iPhone lookalikes.

Even more tantalizing than the quality of its hardware engineering is its unique position as Meego’s swan song, the first and last device to demonstrate the culmination of years of Nokia’s platform development. While I have my doubts about the actual day-to-day utility and usability of the Harmattan UI, it looks like it could have been a solid foundation for future iteration and refinement.

Back when Stephen Elop announced Nokia’s switch to Windows Phone 7 in February, many in the tech press lauded that move. Meego had been in development hell for years with little to show for it. A recent Businessweek profile of Stephen Elop quotes Nokia Chief Development Officer Kai Oistämö saying, “MeeGo had been the collective hope of the company […] and we’d come to the conclusion that the emperor had no clothes. It’s not a nice thing.” Back then only Nokia insiders could assess whether Meego had any legs, but looking at the N9 as it was introduced this week it’s hard to imagine that it made such remarkable strides from burning platform to what they are showing now in four short months.

Unfortunately we will in all likelihood never find out what Meego could have been as the N9 is destined for failure. Nokia made it abundantly clear in recent months that they’re betting their future on Windows Phone 7. There won’t be a thriving ecosystem of software, services, updates and accessories around the N9. It’s hard to imagine that consumers, operators and, above all, developers will flock to a dying platform.

Parsing Nokia’s marketing speech (from this Wired UK article) strongly suggests that the N9 does indeed mark the end of a road:

As to how many future devices will run on the MeeGo platform, unfortunately, we do not comment on unannounced devices or our planned product roadmap. We had previously stated that we would bring a MeeGo operated device to market during 2011 and that is exactly what we achieved with yesterday’s announcement of the Nokia N9.

It seems the N9’s raison d’être rests somewhere between making good on old promises and Nokia’s old guard’s pride to prove to the world that years of development resulted in something good enough to bring to market. But still… between Nokia’s marketing push and the overwhelmingly positive press reception it’s hard to fathom the N9 as a stillborn. Just look at the developer UX guidelines – all these efforts and resources for a hopeless platform, to be ignored by most developers for lack of traction?

Despite all potential shortcomings, the N9 is almost worth buying for being such a singular technological dead end alone.

Further reading: This is my next…, Engadget.

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