N9 + WP7 = the future of the smartphone

Nokia's new N9 phone hints at a Windows Phone future

Nokia's just-announced N9 smartphone  has, from what I can tell, been getting generally favorable reviews: among them are MobileCrunch, Engadget, TechRadar, and ThisIsMyNext.

The main objection is that its Linux-based MeeGo operating system is a Nokia dead-end, since the company is shifting to Microsoft's Windows Phone 7 for its smartphone line. The first of those phones are expected to be announced this Fall, along with new handsets from other manufacturers exploiting the next version of Windows Phone 7, called Mango. [See "Developers find a lot to love in Windows Phone 7 Mango"]

The N9 hardware design shows that there are still plenty of ways to innovate on the phone. At the same time, it reveals something else: the steady simplification of the smartphone as an object means that the phone's whole software system, not just the apps, will be increasing important to the user.

Nokia has created an almost pure touch interface, eliminating the home button. That lets it increase the screen size without increasing the size of the phone. It's refined the touch responsiveness of the display. Your relationship with the phone is now purely tactile: your touch and gestures control not just the apps but the phone itself, turning it on or off, returning to a display of your active apps, and so on.Most accounts seem to agree that Nokia's changes to the display reinforce the advances it made with touch: there seems to be no "distance" between you and the app or image onscreen. The 3.9-inch AMOLED glass panel is nearly end to end and seems to flow out of the polycarbonate unibody case.The UI, from what I can see, overall seems more similar to Windows Phone 7 than iOS, not in the sense of having copied either one, but having formed the N9 UI based on its own reading of how users do, and want to, use their smartphone. Of the trio of N9 home screens, the one with the grid of apps is most familiar to iOS and Android users. And on the N9, it looks jarring and dated: a statement of the fragmented user experience that's rapidly becoming passe'. My guess is that Nokia will transcend this grid with something more organic, which is what Windows Phone 7 offers.Swiping to from this grid to the right brings up the multi-tasking pane which shows a grid of screens, one for each recent application, scrolling down to see each open application. I think the point of this -- in a sense a kind of meta-navigation capability that works to simplify working with your apps -- is subsumed in Windows Phone 7, in part because active apps can be pinned as "Live Tiles" to the main home screen; and because related apps are grouped in the various Hubs (for photos, and so on).Swiping to the left on the Nokia N9 from the main applications grid, brings up what in Windows Phone 7 terms might be called a "notifications hub" -- a single locus for messages, calls, and social networking updates. Again, in Windows Phone 7, many of these notifications are present already on an app's Live Tile(s). My thinking so far is that Nokia's UI design as seen in the N9 shows it has been moving in a similar overall direction as Microsoft with Windows Phone 7. But I think that movement by Nokia shows that Windows Phone 7 is still ahead of the game. I think Nokia's UI engineers are enthusiastically embracing Windows Phone 7; and probably making a range of changes and tweaks that will give it a more stylish finish. I think the integration capabilities of Windows Phone 7, especially with the Mango release this Fall, will be more clearly on display when Nokia introduces something like the N9, running the Microsoft OS. I think that could prove to be an attractive combination to a lot of users.

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