Wednesday, 7 August 2019

Nokia N900 (2009)

Nokia N900
Launched August 2009

Ten years ago this month, Nokia had the opportunity to bend the high-end smartphone market to its own will with the launch of the Nokia N900. Instead it failed to make the impact it needed, and it set off a chain of events that would smash Nokia’s dominance of the industry and nearly wipe its handsets out of existence altogether.

We’ve examined the failure of the N900 before, on the fifth anniversary of the launch of the device. Half a decade on has – if anything – made it more obvious that Nokia’s failed strategy left a huge smartphone-shape crater in the landscape.

It wasn’t a bad device, not at all. Nokia’s fourth-generation device running the Linux-based Maemo OS was mature and certainly capable enough to compete with Apple’s iPhone and Google’s Android. A big screen and decent overall specs made this an attractive device, and of course Nokia had a lot of market goodwill. It should have been a success, yet it wasn’t.

Although it was probably better than the first-generation Android devices it was up against, the N900 certainly lacked the sleekness and polish of the iPhone. With the slide-out keyboard it was physically bulky, the resistive touchscreen was significantly less capable than Apple’s and the user interface lacked the elegance of iOS even though it was more capable. Not quite a killer device, but somewhere close.

But perhaps crucially, Nokia kept referring to the N900 as stage “4 of 5” of the development of the Maemo platform. While this would forgive the feeling that the N900 was something of a work-in-progress, it left customers with the impression that an even better device was in the works. Given that the N900 wasn’t cheap, waiting for stage “5 of 5” seemed like a decent option.

But Nokia never launched another Maemo device. There was no stage “5 of 5” around the corner. Nokia partly sabotaged their own product launch, and then failed to improve on it. Instead, Nokia’s highly anticipated announcement about the future of Maemo in February 2010 turned out not to be a new handset, but an announcement of the eventually disastrous merger with Intel’s Moblin OS to create a new platform called MeeGo.

MeeGo did eventually bear fruit with the excellent Nokia N9, but by mid-2011 – nearly two years after the launch of the N900 – it was an irrelevance and had already effectively been cancelled.

Bad planning, a lack of resources and a basic absence of common business sense killed off the product line, and it was such an important product line for Nokia too. CEO Stephen Elop ditched both MeeGo and the popular Symbian OS and bet everything on Windows. It failed.

Nokia also declined to get involved with Android which was the operating system that would eventually eat Nokia’s market share. A short-lived dalliance with Android in 2014 was shuttered when Microsoft bought Nokia’s handset business – and that too was closed down with the remnants spun off into a new venture called HMD Global who make Nokia-branded Android phones. HMD have been moderately successful in terms of sales, but perhaps more importantly they demonstrated that Nokia could perhaps have succeeded in the crowd of Android manufacturers that sprung up.

These days the N900 is a quite collectable handset, with prices for good and unlocked models being about £200 or so. Oddly enough that’s a lot more than the highly successful iPhone 3GS from the same era.

Image credits: Nokia

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