Nokia's release today of its new smartphone, based on the MeeGo platform it developed with Intel Corp. last year, brings to mind the title track from Paul Simon's latest album, "So Beautiful or So What."
The ultra-sleek touchscreen handset that comes in colors like "cyan blue" and magenta has drawn upbeat appraisals from analysts for its aesthetic appeal and user-friendly design. "First impressions of the N9 are very positive. The phone looks and feels great, the specs aren't world-beating, but they are competitive, and the interface is attractively simple," noted Avi Greengart, research director for consumer devices at Current Analysis. Then comes a big "but." In this case, it relates to the lack of an ecosystem to support the device in the forms of apps or other media services that would allow it to compete with the likes of Apple's iOS platform or Google's Android.
On top of that, it begs the question of why Nokia is launching a hot new phone based on MeeGo in light of its alliance in February with Microsoft to make Windows Phone 7 the primary operating system for future smartphones. That plan also calls for the Finnish phone giant to phase out its own Symbian software.
"As such, it isn't completely clear to me why Nokia is bringing it to market, as it does not reflect the strategic direction of the company, and could distract developers from moving to Windows Phone 7," said Greengart.
For his part, Nokia CEO Stephen Elop said in an interview with The New York Times, "It is an opportunity for us to test and to learn with the N9, but also to put a very clear statement in the market: Nokia continues to innovate, does beautiful work." But Nokia phones haven't been knocked for their exterior so much as their interior -- what its platform can deliver relative to iOS and Android. Presumably, that's why it's shifting to Windows Phone 7.
But he Windows Phone devices won't be shipping in volume until 2012. So Nokia will reduce its reliance on Symbian only gradually, with plans to release 10 new Symbian-based phones in the next 12 months, including its flagship N8 model.
The N9, then, may serve as a sort of preview for what's to come next year via the Microsoft partnership. According to the Times article, Elop indicated innovations in the new N9 smartphone, designed for one-hand use, might find their way into the forthcoming line of Nokia/Windows Phone handsets.
But if the MeeGo platform used in the N9 is a way for Nokia to test out new manufacturing techniques or user interface features, "That's quite different from getting a product out the door, selling it to consumers, and trying to get developers to write at least a few apps for it," said Greengart. Good luck with that, Nokia.