The story of Nokia’s Maemo and MeeGo

It’s a long read – but totally and utterly worth it. After interviewing ten former and current Nokia employees, and combining their insider information with publicly available information, Sampsa Kurri has written a long and detailed article about the history of Maemo and MeeGo within Nokia, and everything that went wrong – which is a lot. It’s sad tale, one that reads almost like a manual on how to not run a large company. Still, between the bad decisions and frustrations, there’s a red thread of hope that leads to Jolla.

I’m not going to spoil too much here, since I want you to read the entire thing to get the full picture of just everything that went wrong – but also, of the almost palpable frustration of the people that worked on Maemo and MeeGo, as well as their lofty and ambitious goals to do nothing short of revolutionising the smartphone market.

Sadly, the revolutionising didn’t happen. From reading the detailed account, it almost seems as if Nokia had far too many talented people, but nobody to lead them towards a tangible, competitive product. To make matters worse – the success of the iPhone and Android made all of those people realise that Nokia was in trouble, and thus, that their positions were in trouble. As a result, everybody fought harder to keep their own team going.

The list of bad decisions is almost endless. While the Maemo team was building the N770 tablet (released in 2005) and the N800 tablet (2007), they were forced to subcontract most of the hardware work, but the team was far too small and resources were too limited to keep quality control up. When the team was building the N810, released in late 2007, it had no phone functionality. The reason for this was entirely political: the Symbian executives had more power than the Maemo guys, and prevented them from including phone functionality, because the realised that Maemo posed a big threat to Symbian.

From here on out, the software troubles started. It’s so complicated I can barely summarise it here, with several UI concepts worked out only to be ditched and restarted. Even after finally settling on Qt, the Symbian team would develop its own user interface development tools, called Orbit, which was incompatible with the one from the Maemo team, called libdui.

The bad decisions just kept on coming. Nokia opted for Intel for its hardware instead of Qualcomm – but Intel didn’t really have anything ready for smartphones, and even today, it only supports WiMAX instead of LTE – which was crucial for the North American market. To make matters worse, MeeGo for ARM was further along than MeeGo for Intel, so Intel frustrated MeeGo development, afraid its x86 SoC would be overrun by the more advanced ARM MeeGo devices.

Ironically, it was Elop’s decision to focus the company on Windows Phone that finally allowed the MeeGo team to gets its act together. As the rest of the company focussed on Windows Phone, internal competition disappeared, and at the same time, the MeeGo team was made smaller and more nimble. It was also given the authority to make its own decisions, and this finally allowed them to get the N9 out the door.

To me, the N9 is still Nokia’s swan song, the last in a long line of great products from what was once the absolute and undisputed number one of the mobile phone industry. It’s Nokia through and though, both hardware and software, with a unique and easy to grasp UI (my brother has one, and it’s dead-easy to pick up) that’s markedly different from the competition. It’s also clear the N9 and the software were developed in tandem – unlike the Lumias which are basically MeeGo hardware designs running Windows Phone. It’s a tour de force which demonstrates that Nokia could’ve owned the smartphone market, if only it had managed its people and assets better.

Still, in between all the depressingness, there’s a red thread of hope that actually makes me happy. From the earliest beginnings of the Maemo team, all the way back in 2005 and earlier, it’s clear that this was a team that tried to make a difference. In between all the bad decisions, frustration, and missed opportunities you get glimpses of a vision of what a device ought to be like – based on scientific research on how people learn and process information (by Lev Vygotsky). As someone who studied psychology in university and still has an interest in the workings of the human mind, this fascinates me to no end.

It reminds me of ‘A personal computer for children of all ages’, which was also heavily based on the scientific literature of its time on how children learned – Piaget, Papert, and Bruner.

Remember that we’re talking about 2005 and earlier. There was no iPhone, no Android, no iPad. Yet, we have people inside Nokia who were working on things that were far, far ahead of their time – only to be frustrated by incompetent management and bad decisions. It must’ve been so frustrating to be able to envision where devices should go, and yet, while working at the largest handset maker in the world which was raking in the profits, petty grudges and irrational personal fears made it impossible to bring that vision to life.

And thus, Apple got there first, followed closely by Android. Nokia fell by the wayside, and has now been reduced to a Windows OEM.

Luckily, not all is lost. Maybe this had to happen. Maybe the Maemo/MeeGo team had to go through this in order to strengthen their resolve and determination. They’re now working on their own. No longer stymied by corporate interests, they are free to bring their vision to life.

Welcome, Jolla. I might be in Vegas on 21 November, but you can bet I’m sneaking off to my – for once, I’m indulging – expensive hotel room to experience your vision for myself. No pressure!


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