The launch of the N9 should have been a significant milestone for Nokia. It was the showcase for the company’s new open-source software platform, MeeGo
. During the N9’s development, there was an expectation the Meego platform would become the cornerstone of Nokia’s next generation of devices as well as powering smartphones, tablets and potentially many other devices.
Meego was born out of a joint development that merged Intel's Moblin
and Nokia's Maemo
platforms. For the N9 (and the Nokia N950
), Nokia renamed the platform from Maemo 6 to MeeGo 1.2 Harmattan in order avoid undermining the collaboration with Intel.
To avoid delays in the development of the N9, the phone, its software and the user interface were entirely developed by Nokia.
However, the appointment of Stephen Elop as Nokia’s CEO in September 2010 and the subsequent strategic decision to adopt Microsoft’s Windows Phone for Nokia's Smart Devices relegated MeeGo to an "experimental" role for "longer-term market exploration of next-generation devices".
It is widely believed that Nokia positioned MeeGo as "experimental" at the launch event for the N9 rather than publicly abandoning the platform. In fact, at the launch event and in the press release for the N9 there was no reference to MeeGo. Further confirmation by Mr Elop in a Finnish newspaper, Talouselama, that the company would not be returning to MeeGo even if the N9 sold well publicly drew a clear line under the project.
When launching the N9, Nokia purposely promoted Qt as the application development environment for the phone. Theoretically, this overcame the challenge that the N9 would be Nokia's only MeeGo device by enabling developers to reuse existing skills from Qt development elsewhere. The company further encouraged developers to adopt Qt by announcing the Nokia N950 development platform as the same launch event.
The N9 ultimately struggled to get traction in the market, not because of its premium pricing (€450), but due to the lack of marketing funding from Nokia which instead diverted the majority of its resources to the Window Phone powered Lumia 800 which was launched three months after the N9. Another challenge was the limited number of markets where Nokia was prepared to sell the device. The company made the decision not to sell the product in several key European markets (France, Germany, and the UK) to avoid diluting the impact of the Lumia 800. This presented a major barrier to major operator groups such as Orange, T-Mobile, and Vodafone.
In the markets where the N9 was available it sold extremely well, to the point that its production run was extended. Manufacturing eventually ceased when the team had exhausted all the available components.
With the benefit of hindsight, the N9 is widely regarded as a highly innovative device. Its user interface was revolutionary, offering an original and very simple approach to interaction. It was arguably hugely influential in the future design of the Apple’s iOS and Google Android operating system.
The N9 was unlocked by a double tap on the screen; A swipe from the edge of the display brought up the home screen. At the time this was a fundamentally different approach to rival user interfaces.
The N9’s interface was built around three distinct views: applications, notifications and multitasking. All three could function as the home screen depending on the view last accessed by the user. This afforded a high level of fluidity to the user interface and significantly reduced the number of steps needed to navigate from one application or task to another.
The software and hardware integration was also extremely strong. For example, the swipe gesture to take a user back to one of the three "home screens" used the entire surface of the device, incorporating the screen as well as the surrounding casing. This ensured the user would not accidentally revert to the home screen when performing a function within an application. This feature, combined with the hardware design, gave the impression of a larger display that spanned almost the entire front surface area of the device.
The N9's polycarbonate (plastic) monobloc design was also highly innovative and contrasted well with the homogeneous range of black touch-screen devices with metal or simple plastic casings available from rival phone makers at the time. It represented the most impressive design and premium finish that Nokia had developed for some years. The design became the foundation of Nokia’s Lumia-branded Windows Phone devices. The N9's casing also offered Nokia several advantages, such as antenna performance, colour variation, durability and differentiation.
The decision to launch the N9 was a controversial one that became the source of prolonged debate for many years. The device itself received a generally positive initial reaction, but it ultimately made little meaningful contribution to sales. However, it will be long remembered as a key device in Nokia’s history and ‘what it could have been’ had Nokia taken a different strategic path.