How Nokia managed to drive its in-house Linux train off the rails
When Meego lost its mojo
Special Report Nokia's strategy to revive its fortunes with its home-grown Linux was derailed by academic theory, bureaucratic in-fighting and a misguided partnership with Intel, a new report reveals.
Finnish publication Taskumuro has published an extensive history of the Meego project which contains a mixture of old and new: some information that's familiar - and some intriguing new details. The report confirms what we know: that Nokia had developed a competitive successor to its ageing Symbian platform years before Apple's iPhone appeared - but fluffed the execution so badly, it would eventually junk almost all of its internal platform software development.
Since February 2011, Nokia has abandoned Symbian, cancelled Meltemi and mothballed Meego - and will license Microsoft software for its high- and mid-range phones. Nokia continues to develop only its venerable Series 40 software in-house.
In short, Meego arrived a dollar short and a year or two late. However, Meego's problems weren't over. As we know from earlier reports, Meego ran into political problems: Nokia wanted to license it as an industry platform, but rival manufacturers were wary. The Finnish giant therefore faced a choice of building its own "ecosystem" or partnering with Google or Microsoft, and ultimately plumped for the latter.
Ironically, Meego lives on. Ex-Nokia staff have formed a spin-out called Jolla, snaffled up some investment, and are pitching the platform (now called 'SailFish') at the Chinese market. The first fruits of the venture will be unveiled at the end of this month.
Trolltech, dev teams and working at cross purposes
Nokia's first Linux device, a touchscreen tablet, made its debut seven years ago, in May 2005. With considerable foresight, Nokia persisted with the Linux-based platform Maemo, leaving it with a mature platform by the time Apple entered the market. The iPhone saw a significant shift as demand for smart devices soared, and the devices themselves changed from being phones with data, to tablets that also did phone calls. Taskumuro confirms that by early 2009 Nokia had positioned Linux as the company's No 1 strategic platform.
This was confirmed in September 2009 at the annual Nokia World event, which was held in Stuttgart. Executive Anssi Vanjoki explained that Nokia's Linux was in its fourth generation, embodied by the N900 tablet, which made its debut at the event. Vanjoki said at the time that the fifth generation would be the first, true mass market iteration.
And indeed, we now learn, Nokia had a range of products sketched in for 2010 launch including a Meego communicator with slide-out keyboard, much like the ill-fated N97.
So what went wrong?
A Nokia Linux timeline
- May 2005: Nokia unveils its first Linux device: a 800x480 pen-based tablet, the N770. It does VoIP calls, plays net radio, and uses the Opera web browser. It borrows UI design from Hildon, and the platform OS from Debian.
- January 2007: Apple announces the iPhone; second generation Nokia tablet announced – the N800.
- October 2007: Nokia's N810 sprouts a keyboard.
- January 2008: Nokia acquires Trolltech, whose Qt cross-platform framework is used for Google Earth and Skype. The plan is to unify all of Nokia's platforms with one API.
- June 2008: Nokia acquires Symbian, spins ownership out to a Foundation, and removes license fees, all in response to Google's free Android OS.
- September 2008: Nokia announces cellular telephony is coming to Maemo 5.
- June 2009: Nokia and Intel cosy up
- July 2009: Third-generation iPhone appears.
- September 2009: Nokia confirms the next, fifth iteration of Linux will be the future smart device platform. Apple loosens carrier exclusivity on iPhone, and Orange and Vodafone UK announce the device will be available on their networks.
- October 2009: Android 2.0 released to phone manufacturers, with new UI, and wins widespread support. Devices incorporating the software spread like bunnies over the following spring and summer.
- February 2010: Nokia and Intel announce they're pooling their respective Linux platforms – Maemo and Moblin – to create Meego - which will "support multiple hardware architectures across the broadest range of device segments". It'll come to netbooks, TVs and cars ... and smartphones.
- May 2010: Nokia board begins hunt for replacement for CEO.
- September 2010: Stephen Elop appointed CEO of Nokia, instigates urgent review of platform options.
- February 2011: Elop announces partnership with Microsoft; Meego is relegated to "project" status for "longer-term market exploration" on devices, platforms, and "user experiences". Nokia's Meego chief and board member Alberto Torres resigns.
- June 2011: Nokia quietly announces its first and last MeeGo smartphone, the N9, running what it calls "MeeGo 1.2 Harmattan". It's a stunning design with a radical new 'Swipe' UI, but only launches in selected markets.
Well, we know that Nokia wasted thousands of man years of developer time in-fighting. Even though the management made the right long-term call, acquiring Trolltech for its excellent Qt framework, it lost control of the engineering organisation. A huge project called Orbit vied for resources with a rival, a framework called libdui – or DirectUI. "Both teams had built the wrong thing," one developer later explained. Former Sun CTO Rich Green would cancel both.
What we didn't know is that Maemo, later Meego after the alliance with Intel was formalised, went through three different UI designs. Most of the time it was absorbed by a series of concepts drawn from theory.
Next page: Activity Theory
From the article
"The biggest thing that changed when Stephen Elop began his post as the CEO of Nokia, was centering the business around North America. According to Elop’s views, the trends that originate from the US are the ones that will prevail in the entire world, as the iPhone and Android have shown. That’s why Nokia absolutely had to be able to compete in the challenging American market to be successful globally."
Flop proving once again that he's arse-about-face, for a change. Nokia was already successful globally, except the US. Solution? Decimate everything which was successful outside the US.
Hit the nail on the head
As a continuing N900 user, I can understand your sentiment.
But for me, it is, and always has been, the best phone _ever_. I use Debian on my PCs anyway, and a phone that can natively ssh back and run apps, complete with GUI, on my home machine is just brilliant. Any software I need is usually on an apt repository, and if it isn't, I don't even need a cross compiler toolchain to build it. I can install GCC and compile it on the phone.
Maemo is debian based (unlike Meego which is based on Redhat afaik), which makes package management easy etc etc.
Basically, I have a phone running general purpose Linux (natively with X windows, not some nasty Java layer), with a slide-out qwerty keyboard. What more could a geek want?
But then Elop came along, from Microsoft. He killed the project dead, sacked all the developers, along with half the company's R&D staff in general, binned 10 years of R&D in Maemo, and announced that all the company's smart phones from now on will run exclusively Windows.
The share price predictably tanked, and frankly it reads like a Microsoft conspiracy to scuttle the company in order to either buy it or just make sure that a disruptive technology never comes to market.
It really makes me sad that I will never get a hardware upgrade for what is basically the best phone OS ever.
N900 debacle ...
I remember well the buzz of anticipation that NOKIA managed to generate when the N900 was announced and the huge number of very committed users of that device who recognized its potential and bought into the concept. I was one of them. We then cursed NOKIA's very soul as it allowed the opportunity to turn to dust and as it betrayed nearly every promise made to the N900 users. Promised software features never appeared including basics like MMS, firmware revisions were late and not complete then dried up prematurely. Most importantly MAEMO was hyped as the future of NOKIA's mobile O/S that would DEFINITELY be used for the subsequent final revision device and then they threw it away by attempting to integrate with INTEL. We all know how that turned out! What truly appalls me is that the educated predictions of disaster made by most of the N900 user groups ALL turned out to be true. If you do this 'x' will happen NOKIA. They did it and 'x' happened. If you don't so this then 'y' will happen ... voila etc.
I own a Samsung Galaxy Note.