From Providence to Lahaina: the Jolla review

In this review, I’ll give a little bit of history, and, of course, cover the phone and its software. Surprisingly, a conclusion wraps it all up.

Shadows of the old world

She came from Providence, the one in Rhode Island
Where the old world shadows hang heavy in the air
She packed her hopes and dreams like a refugee

Way back in 2005, when PDA’s still mattered (somewhat) and smartphones were starting to gain a small foothold in the market, a small team within Nokia, with limited resources, released the first product in what would become an illustrious series of mobile devices: the Linux-based Nxxx series.

This first device, the Nokia N770, didn’t exactly set the world on fire, but that had little to do with the aspirations behind the product. Before the iPhone, before Android, and before modern tablets, the small team behind the N770 developed a Linux-based mobile operating system geared towards things we now do on our smartphones and tablets every day – web browsing, emailing, keeping up with the news, and so on.

The goal of Open Source Software Operations, as the team was called, was ambitious; they wanted to build a product that would “change the world”. Despite all this ambition, this didn’t exactly happen. As Sampsa Kurri detailed in his article about the history of MeeGo, OSSO was underfunded, understaffed, and faced opposition from Nokia’s all-powerful Symbian team from the very beginning.

Nokia’s poisonous internal politics frustrated development efforts for OSSO. They couldn’t include phone functionality, for instance, because the Symbian managers didn’t want them to. They had to resort to outsourcing for many, many aspects of both hardware and software, yet they did not have the manpower for proper Q&A, leading to low-quality, underpowered, non-integrated hardware and buggy software.

The first actual smartphone in the Nxxx series was the N900, released in late 2009. This device suffered from the same dodgy development issues as its predecessors, and on top of that, the Symbian managers were reportedly so afraid of Maemo’s progress over Symbian that they wielded their power to slow Maemo down wherever they could. Still, despite all this, the N900 has gained an incredibly loyal following over the years.

Unlike many other devices, the N900 is essentially completely open, and is running what we would call a complete, ‘traditional’ Linux distribution. Combined with its excellent keyboard, this made the N900 remarkably hacker-friendly. My brother is one of those N900 users, and I get the feeling you can pry the N900 from his cold, dead hands (he has a second spare one in case his current one dies). I used his N900 for a few weeks as my primary phone, and I found it slow, cumbersome, frustrating, heavy, and generally unpleasant to use – yet I still loved messing around with it, since it felt like using a real computer, instead of a locked-down, idiot-proof “smart”-phone.

While I wouldn’t want to use an N900 on a daily basis myself, I understand those who do.

It weren’t just the Symbian managers who frustrated the development of Maemo; Nokia’s upper management itself played a huge role, too. In 2010, Nokia joined hands with Intel to merge Maemo and Intel’s Moblin into MeeGo. The result of this was that two different projects with different ideas, philosophies, and goals had to be merged into one, coherent project. This wasn’t an easy task, and frustrated development even more.

And then.

A burning platform. A former Microsoft executive. Nokia announcing it would switch its entire smartphone business over to Windows Phone, leaving both Symbian and Maemo/MeeGo to rot and die. As many predicted at the time, it would prove to be a bet on the wrong platform – Microsoft had to buy Nokia’s mobile division just to keep it from falling apart. But, that’s a story for another time.

Elop’s decision to focus solely on Windows Phone had one very important side-effect: the Maemo/MeeGo team was suddenly free from all the internal politics, and this meant that they could finally focus on building the best smartphone they possibly could. This phone would be end-of-life even before it appeared on the shelves, and it would have no future. It would be a last big hurrah, a last-ditch, all-in effort – and it resulted in a device that I think is one of the most beautiful and unique pieces of technology ever conceived by a major player.

The Nokia N9 is a design masterpiece, in both hardware and software. The N9 perfects the design language shaped by the Symbian E7 and N8 devices, to a minimalistic unibody polycarbonate shell, without any buttons on the front of the device (only a volume rocker and lock button on the right side). Its display is ‘draped’ on top of the front side of the device, slightly curved at its edges, and its ridiculously deep blacks make it near impossible to tell where the display ends and the bezel begins.

The white model – the illusive ‘unicorn phone’ – is, to me, still the most beautiful phone ever designed.

The N9 is a perfect combination of hardware and software. The display with slightly rounded edges invite the edge swipes that define the N9’s unique user interface. MeeGo Harmattan had an innovative user interface in which you swiped between the application launcher, a list of running applications, and a notification feed. Words really cannot do justice to the N9 – you really need to use one to understand just how special it is. As soon as you pick one up, everything just ‘clicks’ – without a single instruction or hesitation.

Almost everything about the N9 hits all the right notes. The weight, the shape, the curved glass, the size, the swipes – it all makes just enough sense. Many of you will wave this away as silly hyperbole, but it really isn’t. Just find any of the original reviews of the N9, and they all more or less have the same things to say. I implore you to get your hands on an N9 – borrow it, buy it second hand, anything.

I didn’t italicise ‘almost’ for nothing, though. Like the Nxxx devices that came before it, the N9 suffered from many of the same flaws. The device’s specifications were, again, underpowered, causing the software to lag often, applications to open very slowly, and so on. One of the most common things you’ll hear from N9 users or people familiar with the N9 – “Harmattan should have had more power to play with”. In fact, if it weren’t for its underpowered internals, the 2011 N9 would still make for a very good competitor to today’s devices, which is testament to its creators.

The N9 was a unique, one-of-a-kind masterpiece. The hardware was decidedly Nokia, the operating system was decidedly Maemo, and the Swipe user interface was decidedly third party – it was designed by New York-based design studio 80/20, which was later acquired by Square (as a non-American – who?), never to be heard from again. The N9 is one of those rare products born out of a once-in-a-lifetime planetary alignment coinciding with a perfect storm of circumstances. The device was not without its faults – but it takes imperfection to notice perfection.

And this, this is the legacy Jolla is building upon. Free from the shadows of the old world, Jolla has the ability to focus on its hopes and dreams, instead of having to fight the erratic twitches of a dying old-world shadow. While the Maemo and N9 heritage can definitely be seen in Sailfish and Jolla, it’s very much a different device. It’s better exactly in the areas that matter, and worse in the areas that simply don’t matter as much.

Let’s actually start talking about the subject of this review.


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