I have been using Nokia N900 as a primary mobile phone for nearly a year now and I am quite happy with it. However, quite recently I've also bought the best value-for-money Android 2.1 device you can currenly get, which is Orange San Francisco aka ZTE Blade. I won't go in too much details about the phone itself, as anyone could easily look it up, but if you're after joining Android world cheaply, yet without much (any?) compromise in hardware area, then ZTE Blade is definitely way to go. Anyway, I have never intended new phone to replace my N900 because of lack of hardware qwerty keyboard which I'm very addicted to, nonetheless I gave it a shot and put my main SIM card into it for few days. That experience made me cry and I'm just about to tell you why...
Just before I start, I need to note that some time ago I've been lucky to win an HTC Magic phone and I already conducted similar "experiment" of using Android device as primary device for few days (I was using Nokia E71 normally at the time) and I've even written down my thoughts on this. However, HTC Magic wasn't as powerful as Blade is and it was running Android 1.6, not 2.1 as Blade, which does make a difference.
So, why exactly few days of playing with Android made me cry? Simply because it opened my eyes on how good it is and how much Nokia is lacking with Maemo. Well, OK, let's be fair - comparing Maemo with Android isn't exactly accurate, yet having upcoming MeeGo/Harmattan in mind, in some way it is. I basically found Android as a good benchmark of what Nokia needs to create (at least) to catch up and regain competitiveness on the market eaten by Android, Apple and such likes already.
Anyway, while having Android-powered device as my main workhorse for few days, I've been struck by that "wow!" feeling many times, yet I'd like to highlight some of them in particular.
I always liked Android's UI - simple, consistent, user-friendly, intuitive and responsive, with excellent notification system. Although not perfect - homescreen contents arrangement or multi-tasking features are a bit dull, yet generally look'n'feel of Android is just great. Maemo's UI isn't bad, but is definitely less "sexy" and lesson definitely should be learned from Android's beautiful notification system.
Then it's about responsiveness. Althought ZTE Blade isn't exactly the most powerful device around and there definitely were moments where device was "thinking" just a bit too long while flicking through UI, yet overall experience while using it was just great. Almost every UI action is pretty much instant - opening apps, navigating through menus, flicking homescreens etc.. Tap on icon and presto - there it is, at my service, just like that. Doh! Why oh why I very rarely get that feeling on my N900 and most actions I do are preceded with that swirly icon flashing at me for couple of seconds, even when I want to open something as simple as Settings menu?
3rd party apps ecosystem is key to the success (or lack of thereof) of given platform, no doubts about that. Android Market is pretty mature already but most importantly - installing apps is easy-peasy. You can install one or more apps at once within seconds, literally, with each app being quietly installed in the background (with unobtrusive notification once it's done) while I browse for more. Simple as that.
Installing apps in Maemo is one, big, fucking pain. Sorry for the language. Ovi Store takes ages to load, requires me to sign in regardless of checking "remember me" tickbox at earlier occasion and once I'm finally ready to install an application (not to mention that choice of apps for Maemo is, well, poor), Famously Slow App Manager kicks in and I must wait another 1-2 minutes (sic!) for the app to be finally installed. One. Big. Fucking. Pain. Sorry. For. The. Language. Again.
Of course, there are community-driven repositories full of interesting apps, and that's great... for geeks. I love the idea, because I am a geek and I don't mind adding external repos, installing experimental apps or even fiddling with apt-get if that's needed. However, mass market user doesn't know what extras, extras-testing, or - oh Lord, save me - extras-devel is. Plus, there are masses of good apps trapped in -devel for some reason, which makes things even worse. Mass market user wants a single source full of useful apps with hassle-free installation process. Maemo community will hate me now, but let's face it - for MeeGo/Harmattan to become successful and competitive platform, working as a magnet for developers, community-driven repositories and App Manager as we know it must be gone and there should be only one, consistent point where users would install apps. Let it be Ovi Store, but on the other hand Nokia somehow has to persuade community developers to push their precious apps to Ovi rather than extras. I am sure geeks and platform hackers will still be able to work around that and use own software sources, but hey - we're talking about mass market success here, remember?
Web browsing and cloud integration
Some people say Nokia N900 has one of the best mobile web browsers on the market. Well, in some way it is very good, indeed. In most cases it renders websites exactly the same way as your desktop Firefox does. That's great when you think about this, but not so great when you're actually using it. Firstly, it's quite slow, especially the first fire up. Right, Browser UI will turn up quickly, but no URL will start loading until tablet-browser-daemon service will actually start running in the background, which puts extra 10-30 seconds delay before first URL gets loaded! Btw, I've learned about background browser daemon from Bugzilla - try telling this to mass market user... Next big issue is proper text zooming. You can zoom the *page* (ie. viewport) but you can't easily zoom *text* (ie. increase font size) and it won't nicely realign within zoomed viewport. Then there's link tapping accurracy. I often find myself tapping same link many times to actually get it to work. Annoying. Finally, famous Flash support. Watching YouTube videos directly within a webpage is very cool feature indeed, but whole charm disappears when playback gets choppy and quite unpleasant to watch & hear overall, because OS cannot catch-up with the load such playback generates somehow. You can reduce this effect by closing down all other apps, all browser instances (so tablet-browser-daemon will restart, adding extra ~30 seconds to the process, remember), load given URL again and only start YouTube playback without touching anything else. Doh!
Android browser, on the other hand, wasn't that good when I reviewed HTC Magic about a year ago, but it has undergone a vast improvement since then, so browsing web with Android 2.x browser is a breeze. Super fast, simple, intuitive, accurate, responsive with no extra hassles attached. Zooming text with multitouch works just great and text paragraphs will always realign to the current viewport width. There's no inline Flash support for some reason, yet there's dedicated YouTube player app which instantly opens up whenever I tap on any YouTube link and video just starts playing, with no performance issues whatsoever. It just works. There is also a nice and easy multi-window management, there are great sharing features, well... the whole browsing experience is simply excellent.
But it's not just about browsing the web. It's generally about cloud integration as a whole. One day a friend of mine called me asking to quickly find out address of particular shopping centre he was intending to drive to. So I fired up Google Maps, typed in shopping centre name, got result, tapped through Share -> Messaging and presto - requested address details were sent via text message within less than a minute and few taps on the screen!
Integration with Google services is quite obvious with Google-sourced OS platform. While I don't like native Calendar app in Android at all, I like the fact I don't have to worry about sync with my online Google Calendar. Same goes with Contacts, GMail or even my Picasa web albums. Whole Web 2.0 cloud is in my pocket, at my fingertips. Twitter, Facebook, Dropbox... these guys are all there already, with their official and quite good Android apps. I wonder how long would it take for them to consider MeeGo as a platform worth investing their money and effort in?
What's next, Nokia?
As I said in the beginning, intention of this article was not to compare Android and Maemo directly, as that would be a bit pointless, yet I have had an opportunity to discover myself how modern mobile OS platform is supposed to work from end-user perspective. What I've seen and experienced in Android 2.1 over past few days, I expect to see and experience in MeeGoo/Harmattan/Maemo6/whatever you call it, Nokia. And I expect it to run on my N900 as well. And it's bare minimum, really. Absolute minimum I personally require, as mass market will definitely require something more for this to become huge success like Android or iPhone.
All in all, it makes me cry, indeed, because as much as I love Nokia and their products, I know they were (still are?) surprisingly good in wasting excellent opportunities, hence loosing more and more market share and loyal users patience. Time will tell, yet even more delays with MeeGo release put even more tears in my eyes.
Is that all?
All of this sounds like I've just started loving Android and hating Maemo/Nokia altogether. Well, not exactly. While Android definitely got my heart, exposed all those cool things I was missing and even made me quietly think to make a switch indeed, not everything in Android is that perfect as it seems and Nokia N900 is still much better device for me, I mean geek, in many areas (in fact, I wrote most of this aricle on N900 directly :). For time being I will keep using N900 as my primary mobile, patiently wait for MeeGo/Harmattan to appear and install it on my N900 as soon as it would become possible. This should tell me whether Nokia got really serious in catching up with current market trends and whether I should start gathering funds for Nokia N9 or perhaps... HTC Desire Z.