Maemo Edges Out Symbian in Nokia’s N900 Smartphone

Three months after Nokia announced its N900 smartphone, the device has arrived in the United States.

The N900 runs on the Linux-based Maemo platform, and Nokia’s hype around it raises questions about whether the company plans to replace its older Symbian platform with Maemo.

Meanwhile, rumors that Nokia might purchase device maker Palm have been swirling around in the market, drawing yet another question mark around the Finnish smartphone vendor’s plans.

Tiptoeing Through the Platforms

Maemo is an open source platform based on Debian GNU/Linux. It draws most of its GUI (graphical user interface), frameworks and libraries from the GNOME project. Maemo uses the Matchbox window manager and the GTK-based Hildon as its GUI and application framework.

Nokia positions Maemo as an advanced OS designed to run on high-end Nokia mobile computers. It describes the N900 as such a mobile computer.

The N900 has evolved from Nokia’s previous generation of Internet tablets, and it runs on the newly released Maemo 5 software, according to the company. Maemo will complement Nokia’s other software platforms such as Symbian, which Nokia positions as powering its smartphones.

“Symbian is for the productivity-minded user, so it’s on Nokia’s E-Series and some N-Series high-end devices,” Ramon T. Llamas, a senior research analyst at IDC, told LinuxInsider.

Symbian vs. Maemo

Both Symbian and Maemo are open source platforms, which makes things interesting. “I’m still trying to put my finger on the difference,” Llamas said. “I asked Nokia what’s going on because both platforms are open, and they’re being cagey about it. They said consumers are looking for a slightly different experience on Maemo than on Symbian.”

If Maemo gains traction, it will push down into mid-market other Nokia smartphones, like the ones not in the N series that run the Symbian S60 OS, according to Chris Hazelton, a research director at the 451 Group. However, E-series smartphones, which are Nokia’s devices for the enterprise, will continue running Symbian, Hazelton told LinuxInsider.

“This is driven partly by agreements with Microsoft to support Mobile Office and Exchange email messaging on Symbian,” Hazelton explained. If Maemo is successful, Nokia will support Microsoft services on it as well, he added.

On the other hand, Nokia could easily drop Maemo if things don’t work out. “Nokia is testing the waters with the N900 running Maemo,” Allen Nogee, a principal analyst at In-Stat, pointed out. “Nokia could easily switch to a different OS,” he told LinuxInsider.

Talk to the Palm

Meanwhile, a rumor began circulating late last week that Nokia might be thinking about buying Palm. Those reports juiced Palm share prices on Friday, and the stock has been fluctuating since.

It’s not entirely clear what Nokia would get out of buying Palm. “I’m not sure the rumors are true, but if they are, Palm might be a good fit for Nokia,” In-Stat’s Nogee said. “Then again, two strong visions like Nokia and Palm might clash.” Nokia might end up dropping either Maemo or Palm’s webOS if it does go through with the purchase, Nogee pointed out.

More on the N900

The N900 has 32 GB of storage, and it incorporates a Texas Instruments OMAP processor, which has capabilities for portable and mobile multimedia applications. The N900 can access 3G networks and has real-time Web widgets.

It has a 3.5-inch touchscreen, a full QWERTY keyboard, and a 5 MP camera with Carl Zeiss optics and a dual LED flash. It also lets users access services from Nokia’s Ovi store.

Pricing is US$649.

The N900’s browser is Firefox for Maemo beta 5. It works with Flash sites such as YouTube, has a new form assistant to make filling in forms online easier, and it has fixed several bugs found in earlier versions

However, as is the case with many Nokia smartphones, U.S. consumers may be put off by its high price. Other smartphone makers habitually sell their handsets directly to carriers, which give consumers heavy price discounts in exchange for multi-year service agreements. “For smartphones, $200 is the magic number; $300 is doable with a great device and supporting services,” the 451 Group’s Hazelton said. “Anything above that is dead in the water.”

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