N9 may confuse Nokia developers

OvumNokia has announced its first device on the MeeGo platform – its smartphone platform of choice before it was dramatically replaced by Windows Phone in February. While many are applauding Nokia for releasing a seemingly innovative and desirable device, the launch of the device may pose more of a risk to Nokia than an opportunity.
The N9 certainly looks like a capable and responsive device, and it is easy to see why it has already attracted praise. The user interface is a clear improvement on Symbian, especially considering its operation on a touchscreen device. Despite these improvements, the user interface concept doesn’t appear to be especially innovative; it essentially consists of three screens – an “Events” social stream similar to the “Friend Stream” found on HTC’s Android devices, an application launcher grid, similar to Android and iOS, and a screen displaying the applications currently running.
However, to judge a device solely on its hardware and specifications is to miss the bigger picture. We are now in a world where singular devices and hardware are increasingly unimportant; more important is the underlying software platform and the ecosystem built around that – primarily the associated services and third-party application support. From a developer perspective, the device is unlikely to receive an enthusiastic reception. Nokia has already made it clear that this will be the sole device it will release running MeeGo so it is unlikely to gain much, if any, developer support. The one consolation is that applications built using the Qt framework for the newer Symbian^3 devices can be easily ported to MeeGo, though this represents a small and shrinking breed of developers.
The launch of the N9 (and platform) by Nokia runs the risk of confusing its partners, customers, and developers. For developers, MeeGo is now the fourth platform that Nokia is supporting (in addition to Symbian, Windows Phone, and Series 40). At a time when Nokia is seeking to simplify its developer proposition, this introduction of a new platform will hardly help. The N9 may also have an impact on the launch of Nokia’s Windows Phone devices, which are scheduled to hit the market around the same time later in 2011.
Nokia needs to be careful it does not distract potential customers from its upcoming Windows Phone devices, the success of which is critically important to the future of the company.
The fact that Nokia persevered and launched a MeeGo device could be an indication that Nokia still has plans for the platform in the future, despite what the company has said publicly about abandoning it after this device. Given Nokia’s investment in the software to date, it seems unlikely that development will be stopped altogether and it is therefore possible that it might crop up again in a non-smartphone device in the future.
One of Nokia’s current key strategic objectives is to anticipate “future disruptions”, and given Microsoft’s reluctance for Windows Phone to be used outside of a tightly specified definition of a smartphone, MeeGo may have a role to play here.