I believe that 2006 will be the year for Linux-powered consumer electronic devices. For the past few weeks I've been enthralled by one early example: the Nokia 770.
Though it's small enough to fit comfortably into a purse or hip pocket, the 770 isn't a phone, and it's not really a mobile device, either. Nokia envisions it as a new product category and calls it an Internet tablet with the idea that it probably won't even leave your home.
The 770 is intended for one main purpose: accessing the Internet. Picture setting it on the end table so you can call up e-commerce sites while watching TV, or on the nightstand for checking your e-mail and the news headlines before you roll out of bed.
Geeks who have seen this device often fall in love with it, so much so that it's been heavily back-ordered since its release. Unfortunately, however, the Nokia 770 is a disaster as a consumer product. Although designing it to do very few things was a shrewd move, sadly it doesn't do any of them well. Read our review of the Tablet also.
Limited resources, finicky networking
Opening a single browser window taxes the device's limited resources; open the bookmarks window too and you're likely to get an "out of memory" error. Complex pages can crash it altogether.
The 770's Wi-Fi networking, its lifeline to the Internet, is finicky. Message boards abound with reports of users who can't connect to networks that pose no problems for laptops or other equipment. I couldn't retrieve an IP address from InfoWorld's office network even when I stood next to an access point.
The additions of a PDF reader and a video player are nice touches, but neither feels fully baked. Only specially formatted videos will play back at a normal frame rate, and it can literally take minutes to move between pages of a complex PDF.
All told, for a casual user I can't see the Nokia 770 being anything other than frustrating. Developers, on the other hand, are probably already rubbing their hands in giddy anticipation.
But applications will port easily
The 770's OS, called Maemo, is based on Debian Linux. You build GUI applications for it using the GTK+ toolkit, the same code library used to build apps for the Gnome desktop. The development kit is free, and it runs on any x86 Linux PC.
This means that porting applications to the 770 is remarkably easy. Enterprising coders have already built Maemo versions of the AbiWord word processor, an e-book program called FBReader, the Gaim IM client, and the Python programming language. Want to use an external Bluetooth keyboard with the 770 instead of its clumsy built-in input methods? A third-party, open source driver allows you to do it. The 770's notoriously buggy e-mail application is currently undergoing a full community-driven overhaul. And more is on the way, including updates to the underlying OS itself.
So despite its rough edges I still don't see this product as a failure. Rather, I see it as the shape of things to come. Its openness is the key.
Linux - a short cut to consumer success?
I've written before about how Nokia is using open source to give it first-mover advantage in the fiercely competitive consumer electronics market (among other things, the company launched an open source browser in November) . The 770 is another example. By getting these devices into the eager hands of the Linux community, Nokia is allowing its product strategy to be guided by the savviest segment of its market. Customers will eventually see the rewards, both in the 770 and in future Maemo-based devices.
Nokia isn't the only one with this idea, however. A lot of other companies are seeing opportunity in the open source development model and embedded Linux in particular, and I'll talk more about that in future.