I have been both a Nokia user and a Linux user for quite a while. So when Nokia started to do Linux devices, I was thrilled. I was one of the few people that got a Nokia N800 Internet Tablet with Maemo when it first came out, and it was a great device. Browsing was two steps ahead of everyone else. Then when they finally put Maemo into a phone, I pre-ordered the Nokia N900 before it was even released. Awesome device too, way ahead of the curve at the time. A full-blown Linux computer in my pocket! I immediately started developing an app for it. I could use Python and GTK, and development was fun. There was good documentation, and development was going well in the little amount of spare time I could set aside for it.

Then Nokia, after having bought Trolltech, announced Qt would become the main toolkit for Maemo, and my development screeched to a halt. Questions abounded. "Will my GTK program still work in the future? Should I start over using Qt? Hmm, Qt is really geared toward C++, but there seem to be several Python bindings under development... which one should I choose?" I investigated them but it was unclear which one was the best option. Documentation was lacking, and geared mostly toward C++, not Python. "Should I rewrite my app in C++?" This would take much more development time, and I had very little time as it was. So I decided to wait for more clarity.

Then there was the big MeeGo announcement. Nokia and Intel would combine forces. Nokia would throw away its Debian base from Maemo, keep its newly added Qt-based application framework and get the RPM based Moblin under its skin. Lots of excitement in the press releases. Intel and Nokia: two powerhouses, working together. Lots of hyperbole and overly optimistic timelines. My take? "Yay, just what we needed: more confusion and change." I did some more reading after the dust settled. Qt was the way forward for applications, there would be no GTK support for applications, but the GUI framework would be GTK based running Mutter/Clutter, and maybe the community would provide GTK support, but don't count on it. Obviously a marriage based on corporate politics--how else can you explain the bizarre combination of a GTK based environment with Qt based apps? What a mess! The only part that was left of Maemo was the part I didn't like (mostly because of being unfamiliar with it, I'm not saying there is anything wrong with Qt!) and that was just recently bolted onto it. There was nothing left of the original Maemo I liked and had started developing for. So I decided to keep my development "on hold" until there would be a first release of the handset UI for MeeGo.

Of course, that took ages. Eventually there was a MeeGo that could run on the N900, sort of. I never got around to setting up a dual-boot system to run it next to Maemo. It didn't sound like my N900 would ever get a native MeeGo, so I didn't have any drive left to continue my project. I wanted to use the app myself, but to be able to do that, I would have had to develop it for Maemo--a dead platform, abandoned by its creator. So I would have to develop it for Meego if I wanted to use it on future devices and to have it be of benefit to others. But there weren't any devices or announcements. There might have been a way to develop it to work on both Maemo and Meego, but it all seemed confusing and complicated and way more work than I could squeeze into my spare time. Just the prospect of trying to find out what I had to do made me feel too tired to bother, and the chances of success seemed slim. Based on their track record, Nokia would probably just pull the rug from under my feet again when I would have finally convinced myself to start working on the app again.

Well, it turns out that's just what would have happened this last Friday, if I hadn't given up on them already. It suddenly struck me about two weeks ago. What was I doing, waiting to see what a floundering company would decide to do next to screw its developers? And that while there was another viable alternative I didn't have any philosophical issues with, an alternative that had become a major force in the market? So on February 7, I bought an Android phone. Then just 4 days later, on February 11, Nokia proved I had made the right decision.

For Nokia, this deal with Microsoft is just the last in a long string of mistakes, although possibly the worst to date. The mistakes have been piling up the last couple of years, and it's not the Nokia developers who were slow in getting MeeGo ready that should be blamed. Consider this: Nokia had an Internet tablet long before anyone else. Why did nobody outside of geek circles know about it? There was technically nothing wrong with Maemo, it just wasn't marketed. Now tablets are booming, and where is Nokia's offering? It doesn't exist. Why not? They didn't stay the course. They kept changing their minds. They started with a great platform and then did everything they could to mess with it, frustrating developers and users alike, and chasing them away from the platform.

Case in point is the switch from GTK to Qt. When developers at Nokia started development of Maemo, they chose to use GTK. They could have chosen Qt, but they didn't, they chose GTK. Then Nokia bought Trolltech. "What are all these developers doing developing GTK apps when we own Qt?", some manager must have asked. So everyone was forced to switch gears and start doing Qt development. This was obviously a corporate decision, imposed from the top down. The developers would have chosen Qt to start with if that's what they had really wanted to use. Now they were forced to, and they had to act all excited about the change too.

Then Intel and Nokia make a deal, and everyone has to switch gears again. Similar story: the developers had originally chosen a Debian base. They could have chosen Moblin, Fedora, whatever, but they had chosen a Debian base. Whether this was a choice for technical reasons, or based on familiarity doesn't really matter. What mattered was that again someone above the developers decided that they had to throw their work away and use what they were told to use, imposed from the top down.

By now the developers were working on stuff most of them wouldn't have chosen, didn't like, weren't familiar with, didn't feel ownership of, etc. There was nothing left of their original brainchild. Their original vision had been buried by corporate games that were played above their heads. There are complaints that development isn't moving as fast as hoped. Is anyone surprised?

Then Nokia hires some guy from Microsoft as CEO. He doesn't like all the Linux stuff going on, coming from Microsoft and all that. Development of MeeGo isn't moving as fast as planned. What a great excuse to switch gears. Forget all the labor and toil of the last couple of years. This Linux stuff is obviously not working, right. Don't mind that mismanagement is what's to blame. What a great opportunity to drop the whole thing and go to bed with his buddies at Microsoft, who desperately need someone to use their latest mobile OS offering!

The sad thing is that Nokia is a great hardware company. And they could have been a great software company too, if they would have figured out how to manage their software platforms and provide some stability for developers. Instead, they seemed to have done everything in their power to drive developers away, both from Symbian and Maemo. They keep changing their minds, and anyone thinking that this move to Windows Phone is going to change that habit should think again. Windows Phone isn't likely to make any splash in the market, and there is only the question of who is going to pull the plug on it first: Nokia or Microsoft itself (remember Kin?). Having to switch gears in yet another major change in direction, Nokia will likely take a while to release any devices based on the platform, and the implementation might be mediocre due to lack of experience with the platform as they rush a device to market, and because it is a Microsoft OS after all.

When Maemo just started, I was kind of jealous of the people who could work on it at Nokia, but the last couple of years must have been heartbreaking for those developers who put their heart and soul into the project and saw it slowly torn to pieces by incompetent management. Now a whole bunch of them are going to be laid off. Maybe it will be a relief for them. Ari Jaaksi, who was heading up Maemo/Meego development must have seen the storm clouds on the horizon last October after he got a Microsoft CEO, and drew the correct conclusion. It wouldn't surprise me if he was given some arbitrary deadline for MeeGo at that time, and he knew it couldn't be met. I am convinced others will leave Nokia out of their own initiative because they can't swallow this change--I know I couldn't. Let's hope that all those Linux hackers get jobs elsewhere where they can support the Linux ecosystem while Nokia will be turned into a soulless Microsoft shop and continues to whither to just a shadow of its former glory. Its situation could hardly be worse than what it is now: we have a company that failed to establish a viable mobile platform join forces with another company that is failing to establish a viable mobile platform, and they hope they will be better off working together?

Too bad it had to turn out that way. Maemo was a great hand-held platform, one that used standard open source technologies from the bottom Linux kernel all the way to the top GUI interface. The other Linux based players all seem to favor their own custom layers at the user interface level. There was technically nothing wrong with Maemo. It just was woefully mismanaged. Maybe there is still life left in it for hackers, but I don't see it being adopted in another phone anytime soon, which is a shame. It is truly sad to see such an exciting platform abandoned.

This blog post was posted to Techie Brain Showers on Monday February 14th, 2011 at 12:55PM
 

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My name is Patrick Van Oosterwijck. Welcome to my spot on the web where I will hopefully regularly dump some of my brain content for the benefit of whomever may find it useful.

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