Why Nokia is in deep trouble with MeeGo

Nokia has released more details about its MeeGo mobile phone OS, but it’s almost certainly going to be too little, too late

Beware open source. Just ask AOL. All it wanted in the late 1990s was a killer browser to destroy Microsoft's Internet Explorer. They figured the best way of getting this was to make Netscape open source. Four long years later, AOL finally got what it wanted, just about, but the world had changed almost beyond recognition. Internet Explorer was dominant; the game was over.

In those four years the open source guys had entirely rebuilt Netscape from the ground up, defining technical standards still in use today. They built a world-class bug filing system too. The trouble is that AOL really, really needed a killer browser as quickly as possible. If ithad received it, computing history as we know it today might be very different.

I'm starting to think that Nokia might be in an AOL's former situation with MeeGo, the operating system for mobile devices that was created by the merger of the Maemo and Moblin projects. It's true that as a project, MeeGo is relatively young, but it's based on established and mature technology that first saw the light of day in 2005 as something called Maemo.

Since that time, Nokia has been heralding Maemo and then MeeGo as the future of its phone business, and in doing so have put significant faith in the open source universe.

What Nokia really needs right now is a killer smartphone OS -- phones it's selling at this very moment, during this holiday season, which is sure to go down in history as being the defining moment for smartphone sales. The revolution starts here, but Nokia isn't 100 percent present.

Until MeeGo produces the goods, Nokia is stuck with Symbian, an aging, creaking operating system that's stretched almost to breaking point in Nokia's latest phone releases.

Nokia is one of the chief sponsors of MeeGo, which is slated for its first phone release in the middle of next year. By that time Android and Apple's iOS will be extremely well established. It'll be game over for any other competitor because history has shown that most technology marketplaces only support two main players.

What's rather strange is that lots of people are expecting MeeGo to be a blockbuster of an OS that will finally show the world how mobile phones should work.

Again, this sounds familiar, and it's wise to question the proclamations of open source people. For example, the Linux kernel was considered a temporary measure for a significant part of its history. It was believed that something called GNU Hurd would eventually take its rightful place at the centre of the open source operating system world.

The trouble is that Hurd kept getting redesigned, with ever more ambitious ideas getting mixed in, and it never actually got close to completion. Even now it still isn't finished.

Open source developers have a terrible tendency to believe that those two birds in the bush are worth more than one in the hand, and they have an insane faith in the beauty of perfection.

God help any corporation that relies on open source to deliver the goods quickly.

As such, it was immensely depressing to hear the comments of Marko Ahtisaari, senior vice president of design at Nokia, who spoke Wednesday about how MeeGo would revolutionize smartphones. He talked of one-handed phone use, and how MeeGo would somehow reduce the amount of time users spent staring at the screen.

Call me a cynic, but this sounds like extremely characteristic open source waffle: lots of cool ideas, but essentially vaporous. Why isn't MeeGo here right now? Seriously. A lot is riding on this. How close is it to release? Where are the phones that feature it? In short, where's the beef?

As far as I can tell, only one actual phone on the planet is able to run MeeGo at the moment: the Nokia N900, an entertainingly expensive Internet tablet/phone hybrid mostly bought by hobbyists. And the N900 doesn't even run MeeGo in any official capacity. The N900 is simply serving as a testbed for MeeGo programmers. Nokia doesn't officially support any consumer who runs MeeGo.

It's not just Nokia that's betting the farm on the ghostly spectre of MeeGo. Intel and AMD are hoping it will inject some life into their mobile phone chip businesses. Both are stunningly far behind market-leader ARM which, via the chip designs it licenses to third-party manufacturers, has the mobile phone market pretty much sewn up.

I wish the developers of MeeGo all the luck in the world, really, and as a longtime user of Maemo (which MeeGo is based on) I have a lot of respect for their work. But it's time that Nokia woke up and smelled the coffee. Android is the future. There isn't any question. Nokia has fallen into the trap of believing open source hype. It's backing the wrong horse, and there's no dishonor involved in cancelling the bet before the horse limps home.

Keir Thomas has been writing about computing since the last century, and more recently has written several best-selling books. You can learn more about him at http://keirthomas.com and his Twitter feed is @keirthomas.

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Keir Thomas

PC World (US online)
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