Editorial: A homage to the Nokia N9, 2 years on

2013-09-24 00.34.39

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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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About The Author

Based in Singapore, Alvin is an applied drama and psychology student who loves caffeine, cycling, photography and working with stories, and is obsessed with mobile technology, often spending many of his waking hours thinking, talking and writing about it. He has also developed an irrational love for his Nokia N9.
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Number of Entries : 309
  • http://texrat.net/ aka texrat

    Correction: Windows Phone DOES make use of haptics.

    • http://aegisdesign.co.uk Shaun Murray

      Where? I can’t remember my Lumia 800 using them anywhere though I must admit I used it for only a few weeks before giving it to one of the kids, who used it for a few months while saving up to buy a second hand iPhone 4.

      • http://texrat.net/ aka texrat

        Both my Lumia 920 and 1020 generate vibration in a number of contexts, some intrinsic to the OS (notifications, certain buttons) and of course developers have access to vibration through the API and I’ve seen it used in games. I’d have to check my 800 but I’d be surprised if this was limited– maybe introduced with WP 8? I’d have to check…

        • http://aegisdesign.co.uk Shaun Murray

          But not when typing on the keyboard or sliding switches or menus. The keyboard haptics on the N9 made it feel almost like a physical keyboard whereas the Nexus 7 I’m typing this on now feels dead and that’s how I remember Windows Phone too.

          Alvin is right to point out this difference.

          • http://texrat.net/ aka texrat

            Alvin didn’t point out *that* difference. He said: ” Windows Phone and iOS have no haptics at all”.

            I’m not debating which is more or better, just that the statement is in error.

        • Doe John

          I tried 930 at launch as well as k microsoft friends and we both confirmed no hapatics. Maybe something has changed since with update?

          • http://texrat.net/ aka texrat

            930? I don’t know of such a model. The 920 has them though.

  • goosepig

    Nice read Alvin, thanks. I STILL want an N9 – never got around to buying one as they were too expensive at the time of launch for me, however they are now well priced on ebay so I might just get one.

    The centralized ‘conversation/messaging’ reminds me of my brilliant N900 (still the best phone I ever had) where all my texts, Skype and MSN IM chat were rolled into one application, and Skype was completely integrated deep into the OS. Brilliant.

    On a side note – Damn you Elop!!!

    • Kaacz

      Yes, N900 is first Nokia (maybe first in total) phone with unified message center with protocols as plugins to it. N900 have Maemo5. In fact, N9 have Maemo6 with Meego QML on top. Message center is same. But not only text. Voice or video calls (Skype, Gtalk) are integrated to one center.

      And all this is grouped on contact card. http://kaacz.rajce.idnes.cz/Nokia_N9/#N9_Contacts_IM.jpg – any click on selected part of buttons start same unified center with selected outgoing path and protocol.

      iOS7 now boasts with contact card integrated only iOS-only/closed ip voice call .. LOL .. About two years later then N9 .. About 4 years later then N900 .. LOL

      The need to use different apps for different message protocols is old and ugly feature of the last century. Open Skype: contact offline, then open Gtalk: contact offline, then open ICQ … bleh … aaargh .. kill this phone ..

      N9 is simply to me – on the contact card i see online status for each protocol for this person. And select/tap online one .. easy, simply, elegant.

      Abut share plugins: in-os dropbox is broken/nofix, install & use Nine2D plugin. :)

      Integrated Foursquare app still work for me, but i use 4squick – is better.

    • Mohammad Al-Hashimi

      “my brilliant N900 (still the best phone I ever had)” Since the day that I admitted the fact that my N900 has became an old man. And I’ve been switching from phone to phone searching for a similar experience but NOTHING had ever been even close.

      “Damn you Elop!!!”

    • Tams80

      It was so useful. Facebook chat was so convenient I actually started getting annoyed at it. People were also always asking why I was “always online”.

      I didn’t use Skype much and it was a bit buggy for me, but the idea was nice.

      No other phone seems to have anywhere near the integration. I’m surprised Android doesn’t have an app for that (oh, wait, that’s Apple; but that wouldn’t work…). When I switched from the N900, I realised how much I took the centralized ‘conversation/messaging’ for granted.

      PS “Damn you Elop!!!”

    • Isano

      I still prefer n9′s interface than jolla. Hmm just thinking, what if nokia decided to go back with meego?

      • sal

        Too late in my opinion. Harmattan is too primitive compared to everything that’s out there. The only thing that it has going for it is the look and feel.

  • http://aegisdesign.co.uk Shaun Murray

    The official FourSquare app still works for me except for the same occasional hiccough it’s always had where it can’t find the server but then can 3 seconds later.

    Google’s exchange support only affects new device sign ups too. It continues to work OK for me.

    But, it does have to come to an end at some point and when that happens we have a lifeboat in Jolla.

  • Ning Yu

    I have sold mine earlier this year, but still by far the more beautiful handset I have ever used!

  • http://www.facebook.com/mohd.sarim Mohammad Sarim

    The N9 looks so elegant and so simple to use. I use Windows Phone, which is awesome, but N9 is different! I wish Nokia kept supporting Meego.

    • Caprico

      Absolutely. It wouldn’t have been a harm to customers and Nokia to use both operating sytems. Oh wait, Microsoft saw MeeGo as a threat… :-/

  • A. Sethi

    Heh. This was more a love letter than anything else. But I can relate to it.

    Impulse buying that N9 on that trip to Bangkok was a good idea. I dont regret it at
    all. And thinking about what you’ve said, I think ill buy a screen and body now before the parts actually run out. I want to keep this one around forever.

  • goosepig

    Request please Alvin – how about a similar letter/homage to the glorious N900?

  • Ph_eagle

    TWO years. It could have gone a long way if it was not trashed by Elop. It could have matured well and grown with WP or Android. What a wasted opportunity indeed. Now history has told that WP phone has failed Nokia in a big way. Elop failed indeed.

  • wisdomlight

    This is so true. I constantly look at my n9 in longing nostalgia wish it had just that but more apps and platform upgrade. N9rocks!

  • Caprico

    Very nice article! I switched 2 years ago from iPhone 4 to Nokia N9. Since then I’ve been using it without a break and still couldn’t go back to iPhone or anything else. Thanks to the community it was possible to easily (I’m no expert in such things…) install some modifications (“hacks”) which are keeping the phone a bit up-to-date.

    It has been a bit difficult sometimes because certain apps I needed were missing. But on the other side there are many wonderful, well working apps available to Nokia N9, which I can’t find on iOS. iOS still is inferiour to MeeGo – at least for my needs.

    Once you know the possibilities and feature of MeeGo, you simply can’t go back to anything esle. I hope my N9 makes to the end of the year and then gets replaced with a Jolla device.

  • Doe John

    Revisiting my cyan n9 I feel the same about many respects. However there are too many deficiencies, most can be blamed on Elop.

    Meego swip ui still have some major design flaws

  • http://topraceadrenaline.com/ anzx

    bought n9 in 2013 and I will use it untill it dies!!!

  • whacknuss

    i bought the white one and i really, really love the phone to this day. Incredible bright colors, the swiping, which really becomes second nature, the general consistency and clean appearance of the ui, double-tap to unlock, the notification on the locked screen – those things are great and IMO unmatched to this day. the small amount of available apps did not bother me, i never actually missed an app, even a whatsapp client was released eventually (In contrary to others i had to issues with the browser, i kind of liked its simplicity).

    As mentioned before, it is aging rapidly, though. The stock dropbox functionality is broken and many nice open source apps will most likely be abandoned in the near future. But the worst issue right now is: In Germany the cell providers recently changed something in the 2g/3g switching mechanisms, which led to the N9 loosing the cell connection without notifying the users, you just stop receiving calls and texts and only notice it, when trying to call someone or using the internet. A reboot is the only way make it work again. This issue was fully documented on nokia’s bug tracker, but they refused to fix it. Eventually someone with a sense of decency within nokia kind of smuggled an attempt to fix to this issue into some arbitrary package update (which does not work in all cases, sadly).

    Well, not being able to receive calls is kind of a showstopper, so the agony will sooner or later triumph over the love for the white brick and i’ll have to shop for a new phone, which is weird because i am not excited to get a shiny new phone, but rather looking back with melancholy. Maybe jolla will deliver a successor, but tbh i doubt they’ll succeed in the market and the hardware they showed looks weird, compared to the neat & clean N9.

    • jalyst

      That bugfix you’re referring to, I’ve not seen 1 person in the main thread at TMO claim it’s not worked for them (if they’ve had that issue), have you posted there?
      Also, there is a fix for the built-in Dropbox, Google “Nine2D”…

      • whacknuss

        Since applying the fix i had this issue two or three times still, which is a very big relief, since this used to happen at least once a day, but still (i have a small kid, and the prospect of unknowingly missing urgent calls is disturbing).

        I guess i am not exactly a computer illiterate (hell, i even ported software to the maemo stack back then) and i had quite a hard time to figure out what was wrong with the phone. When i finally found the bugreport, read through lots of pages and found that obscure fix, it was still cumbersome to apply. (nokia-link was not installed on my phone, neither could i install it from the store, i had to grab the .deb from somewhere, install it manually to receive the update with the fix).

        I figure for most users (who have no clue about bug trackers, the maemo community, etc.) the phone is simply bricked now, which is sad for nokia as a once-respected company.

        jolla should not compete on hardware specs, but build on the great software stack they created (I think i read once though, that the swipe-ui was outsourced to a design shop and maybe it’s so great because software engineers were not involved).

        • jalyst

          The fix wasn’t tucked away in a bug-report, it was announced officially & popped up as an update, it wasn’t obscure. God knows why they used Nokia_Link as the delivery mechanism though. As I said, go to the thread at TMO to further troubleshoot installation of the fix.

          The UI is overrated, there’s several major design flaws, which I’m sure Jolla’s well aware of, & hence won’t make the same mistakes. -touch wood.

    • Daniel Jansson

      For me the network bug behaves the opposite. A year ago i had that bug on the N9 and it was so troublesome that I sold it. Though I missed the N9 so much so I recently bought one again and that bug is 100% gone. I don’t know if it’s a change in my providers network or if the newest Nokia Link 3G fix took care of that. Anywho I’m a happy camper now.

      Instead of reboothing the phone. Try pulling the SIMcard out and then put it in again. I think that will do the trick and is way faster than a reboot.

  • Kenny

    Not only is Dropbox broken but Butaca has stopped working and Popflix refuse to play trailers due to changes in API and developers are not fixing them. Apps for N9 are getting less but I still use my N9 as my main mobile phone. It has features which no other os can give me like the most elegant multitasking in the world. Nokia could have gone very far with MeeGo if it wasn’t killed by Elop the Microsoft mole. Damn you Elop!

    • jalyst

      I’m not aware of alternatives to Butaca & Popflix that u can try, I’d post in the main sub-forums at TMO, someone there’s bound to have a idea or 2.
      Search 1st, if you don’t see anything closely related to your area of interest then start a thread or 2, or post in a old thread or two & start a new thread.

      • Kenny

        Thank you Jalyst. The developers of Butaca and Popflix know that their apps are broken but they are not fixing them because they have moved on. Sadly, apps for N9 will get less as more developers do the same. There are no alternatives because the app store is very small. However I still hold the best smartphone os in my hands and a few less apps isn’t going to change that.

        • jalyst

          I haven’t searched the app store carefully for the genre of apps you’re seeking, I hope you have. Also, be aware there’s several major streams beyond the store, which is why I suggested what I did, it’s still recommended.

  • @nickkosmusic

    Great article. I still use my N9 every day here in the UK. Tried Android for a few months. Enjoyed the range of apps but soon started missing the ‘beauty’ of my N9.

    It’s so weird. I’ve never felt this way about any piece of technology before. I still want to show it off wherever I go. It not only looks beautiful but it feels beautiful. The swiping gesture is just a pleasure to do. I love sitting on a train, listening to music, showing off what I’m listening to on the standby screen.

    Foursquare still works for me too. Qneptunea is simply the best Twitter client on any platform, desktop or mobile. Reading books on the fbreader app is another beautiful experience, especially on the night mode.

    I love having the Feed screen always there, so I have something to read when I go through a tunnel on the train, or on the Underground.

    Yes, I sometimes wish the web browser was faster and better, but other times it just works so beautifully and wonderfully that it makes up for everything.

    And that’s the thing about the N9: its quirks are part of its charm. But mainly it’s just a thing of beauty, a work of art. And the joy of having something that’s exclusive, that most people have never even heard of, is unsurpassed.

  • Tams80

    I never got an N9. I had a speculative 64GB cyan one pre-ordered, but of course they never release a 64GB in that colour. After that I just made do with my N900.

    I wish I’d used one when they were in their heyday. The UI looks gorgeous and really easily to use (especially the alarm). The unified messaging was something I loved on the N900 and it looks even better on the N9.

    There are things I’m not so keen on. No physical camera button, internal (smallish) battery and no microSD.

    The N950 interested me the most, but alas that was not to be.

    • jalyst

      N950 was vastly overrated compared to the N9, some stuff didn’t work properly or was simply broken. The only advantage amongst all the disadvantages was it’s physical qwerty, but that depends on the user, some cant stand a qwerty. Plus maybe also it’s steel BQ, but that also affected reception greatly. The $ that the N950′s still being sold for is hilarious, only a fool would pay that sort of $.

  • Isano

    I want an N9. :(

  • Siva

    Wazapp doesn’t work anymore for new installations. Gives an error saying ‘server says old_version’. Probably an API upgrade on WhatsApp side.

  • Sun_Wukong

    Guess i am also one of the rare few in Singapore to own a Nokia N9 and is still using it (although not as a daily driver). To me, Nokia N9 is the definition of bold, intuitive and simplicity, and represents the pinnacle of design excellence and innovations of what former Nokia was. There may not be another phone that will match the greatness of this phone (not even the spiritual successor Jolla, with its seemingly confusing interface).

    As stated in your 2nd anniversary ‘tribute’ to N9, some of the problems in N9 emerged due to neglect from app developers and even Nokia. However, I managed to alleviate some of these issues by installing and dual-booting N9 with Android 4.1. Because N9 is such a great device, it handles Android very well (though camera and call functions isnt working), and it can install and run many of the latest Android apps such as dropbox and even instagram! (it can even work with Play Store!) Above all these benefits, it makes your N9 fresh again. I highly recommend all of you who still have your precious black/cyan/magenta jem, to install and try out Android on N9. Its worth it.

    For more info, you may check out these websites.

    http://talk.maemo.org/showthread.php?t=90646

    http://www.theverge.com/2013/2/24/4020574/phoenix-the-nokia-nexus-n9

    • jalyst

      Makes little sense, if you do your homework you can find most of the apps you’re needing in the community, not games, but most other genres.

      If you want to run Android apps, use your Android device, most folks who own a N9 will own at least one Android device.

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  • Anoop George Jacob

    Great article, the N9 truly was one of the greatest of nokia’s(Smartphone age) portfolio.

    With Sailfish making a lot of inroads after where Meego left off, it will be quite an interesting platform to watch out for after all, especially if the “other half” of it turns out anything half decent and not remain purely gimicky!