Editorial: A homage to the Nokia N9, 2 years on
This month marks the 2nd year of the Nokia N9 reaching general availability. Much change has happened in the mobile industry since 2011. We’ve seen dual-core CPUs become faster and more efficient, we’ve been through the same cycle with quad-core CPUs and we’ve seen the emergence of octa-core chips. Android has become the undisputed winner among mobile platforms from a market-share perspective. HTC is no longer in its golden era from a profit standpoint. Lumia devices have gotten a lot more compelling than they once were. Nokia has announced that it intends to get rid of its hardware business. Chinese hardware makers like Huawei and Xiaomi are on the rise. BlackBerry is on death’s door. Companies like Canonical and Mozilla are trying to stake their claim in the mobile industry, along with upstarts like Jolla.
Still, the Nokia N9 and its MeeGo Harmattan software platform remain unmatched in various aspects of user interface and user experience. Even though MeeGo Harmattan has essentially remained stagnant and frozen in time for 2 whole years, it still represents a benchmark in some ways for what a smartphone user interface should be.
One of the most common criticisms of BlackBerry 10 is the fact that a significant amount of user interface navigation is handled by touch gestures that are not very obvious or consistently implemented and take some getting used to. MeeGo Harmattan, with its single swipe gesture, remains the best implementation of a gesture-based user interface that I’ve seen; the gesture is so natural and easy to pick up that it instantly becomes a habit. It works in the same way throughout the user interface and it allows for a sense of depth and place. Furthermore, the gesture does not get in the way of efficiency; it is effortless to zip across home screen panes and a quick sweep of the thumb accompanied by a tap gets you out of an app and into another one. Apple has only gotten around to implementing a back gesture within apps in iOS 7 and still relies on a physical Home button for system-level navigation. Android and Windows Phone retain the use of software or capacitive buttons, with swipe gestures mainly used within apps.
Haptics is another aspect of the MeeGo Harmattan user experience that remains unsurpassed. Haptic feedback (accompanied by audible, realistic sounding clicks) is present not only when typing, but also when dragging the cursor around in a text box, selecting a time and opening the status menu. It’s not a vague vibration like you get on most Android phones either – it’s a short and sharp buzz. The use of haptics mean that interacting with the N9 feels more like interacting with a monolithic appliance (as opposed to a software stack running on a set of chips). I have not seen a better implementation of haptic feedback on any smartphone platform as yet; Windows Phone’s implementation of haptic feedback is limited solely to the capacitive buttons and iOS has no haptics at all. On a related note, MeeGo Harmattan still retains the best standby screen we’ve seen on any platform to date; Nokia’s Glance Screen solution on Windows Phone does not present much information, while Motorola’s Active Display comes closer to the standard set by the N9 but does not actually remain onscreen all the time; it instead “breathes” in and out.
The MeeGo Harmattan user interface remains one of the most aesthetically consistent and innovative user interfaces I’ve ever seen. Most, if not all graphical elements – icons, buttons, contact pictures, are variations on the basic squircle shape. The Nokia Pure font lends a distinctive look to text that harmonizes well with the UI graphics, the use of brightly-coloured highlights stands out on top of dark backgrounds and certain user interface elements are completely unique to the platform, such as the quick scroller (more elegant than a large letter overlay), time selector and event feed homescreen. Overall, the user interface retains a sense of elegance, cohesiveness and consistency that I really enjoy.
Multitasking and unified messaging are the two aspects of functionality where I feel MeeGo Harmattan really stands above the smartphone platforms of today. Even though all three major platforms have now coalesced around a scrolling row (column, in the case of Android) of apps accompanied by thumbnail previews, the grid-based app switcher on MeeGo Harmattan actually feels like an integral part of the user experience as opposed to being merely optional. There is no way to avoid using the app switcher on MeeGo Harmattan; as one of the three home screen views it is quite literally put in front of you as opposed to being hidden behind a long-press of a Back button or a double-press of a Home button.
The unified messaging client supports SMS/MMS, Facebook Chat, Google Talk and Skype; it hearkens back to a model where functionality did not necessarily have to be silo-ed off into separate and distinct apps, where additional features could be provided to the user in the form of installable plugins for the platform’s built-in messaging app. If WhatsApp had decided to support MeeGo Harmattan, it could very well have made such a plugin. Imagine having a single built-in app on your smartphone that can work with every popular messaging platform, allowing you to seamlessly communicate with people regardless of what messaging service they use and participate in conversations happening on different platforms without having to switch between all these different apps. webOS had a similar solution; Windows Phone only supports Facebook aside from SMS and MMS. When it comes to unified messaging, we have not made enough progress in the past two years to get to where things should be.
I’m by no means suggesting that the likes of iOS and Android have not surpassed MeeGo Harmattan in significant and meaningful ways, both from a functionality and usability perspective. Android’s notification system is by far the best that is currently available. The iOS virtual keyboard is second to none in terms of ease-of-use and accuracy. Google Now provides information that is relevant to you without you having to ask for it, allowing your smartphone to anticipate your needs. You can certainly accomplish far more with any mid-range Android smartphone than you ever could with the N9, and you’d probably experience faster and smoother performance.
Continued use of the N9 as a primary or even secondary device will only become more challenging as time goes on. Many key Qt apps built for MeeGo Harmattan have not been updated in a year or more – exceptions include Wazapp (the little WhatsApp client that could is still functioning and getting updates that fix what WhatsApp breaks), and gNewsReader (which recently gained beta Feedly support, dodging a Google Reader-shaped bullet). Some, like the official Foursquare app, don’t even work anymore. As online services evolve and APIs change, some of the N9′s built-in features will be broken and remain that way indefinitely. We’ve already seen Google phase out Exchange support, which leaves Microsoft’s Outlook as the only avenue for contact syncing going forward. The built-in Dropbox uploader is also broken, and you’re stuck with Google’s legacy Talk messaging platform that has since been superseded by Hangouts. Of course, we’re also looking at hardware degradation – that internal, nonremovable battery in your Nokia N9 will deteriorate, and the dwindling supply of spare parts means that there will come a time when it will be impossible to have Nokia repair a broken N9.
Still, it has been a refreshing experience to use my magenta N9 once again, and it is interesting to note the ways in which MeeGo Harmattan, an otherwise stagnant platform that has not changed in two years, continues to hold its own against the competition in some areas and surpass it in others. Nokia had something magical here and it continues to be a crying shame that they were in no position to build upon it.