A eulogy for Maemo/MeeGo

A long, long time ago, when I was still very enthusiastic about desktop linux and free software in general, an idea of a linux-based cellphone or a ‘palmtop’, as they were called back in the day, was something the FLOSS community dreamed of. There were numerous software and hardware projects (does anyone still remember OpenMoko?), and one of them, Android, was acquired by Google in 2005, and later became one of the most popular operating systems for mobile devices in the world.1

I never liked Android. Not because I didn’t like the interface or the phones, or the logo, or Google – no. I didn’t like Android because it was a fork of the linux kernel and a linux distribution that didn’t (and from what I know still doesn’t) support the full set of standard GNU libraries or X window system.2 And because there was a much *better* alternative developed by some Gnome project programmers and Nokia, called Maemo, that already in 2005 provided a nice touch-based interface, supported many well-established linux technologies (X.org, Gtk+, ESD, etc.), and was actually used by a device you could buy, namely Nokia’s N770 Internet Tablet. Granted, it wasn’t a phone, but the software was mature compared to Android at that time (first Android devices available to the public were offered in late 2008), and was much more hacker-friendly and linux-friendly. It was easy for desktop linux programmers to integrate their apps with Maemo and to write Maemo software. At least that’s the way I thought about it back in 2006.

In 2009 Nokia released the first smartphone that ran Maemo – the N900. But that was 2009, and Android already had an established user base, and new Android phones were released every couple of months. I’ve seen many N900 phones at FOSDEM in 2010, free software hackers really loved them. I remember everyone being excited about the potential Maemo had, but people also seemed to begin to realize that the battle was lost. Nokia was late, Android was good (or good enough) and popular, and the N900 remained a smartphone good for hackers and hackers only.

However, in February 2010 Nokia’s Maemo and Intel’s Moblin merged, creating MeeGo3, and then in June Nokia announced that all its smartphones will run MeeGo. There was hope, but not for long. In February 2011 Nokia changed its mind, and decided to team up with Microsoft, and have its new smartphones run the new Windows Phone 7.

It therefore saddens me to read the review of the latest MeeGo-based smartphone, the fantastic N9. It seems like a terrific device, both hardware- and software-wise. Engadget sums the software up in the following way:

MeeGo 1.2 Harmattan is such a breath of fresh air it will leave you gasping – that is, until you remember that you’re dealing with a dead man walking. It’s impossible to dismiss what’s been achieved here – a thoroughly modern, elegant, linux-based OS with inspired design that’s simple and intuitive to use, all developed in house by Nokia.

That’s exactly how things are with N9: it’s awesome in so many ways, but so fundamentally flawed because it’s a dead platform. Dead to most people, that is, because hackers will definitely find ways to upgrade the software, they’ll write apps if they need to, and will be happy to use the wonderful hardware that N9 features. The rest probably won’t even notice such a phone existed, because Nokia said it will not release the N9 in US, UK, Japan, Germany or Canada.

And I will shed a tear, because what seems to be the most innovative and fresh mobile platform today is being buried alive. And why? Probably even people at Nokia do not know.

Discussion on HackerNews.

  1. Actually Canalyst reported that right now (October 2011) Android is the best selling operating system for smartphones.
  2. I don’t think it’s necessarily a good thing for an operating system for smartphones to support all that any more. But in 2005 things looked a bit different.
  3. It’s easy to get lost. Now MeeGo merged with some other projects and became Tizen.
 · Bergen, Norway