Geeks want to save MeeGo

The official launch of Nokia N9 last week has got both excited and frustrated reception. Excited, because Nokia N9 has, by many people’s opinion, the best touch screen UI Nokia has done so far. The device itself is nice too. But frustration is caused by the fact Nokia has announced N9 will be first and only MeeGo phone coming from Nokia.

What’s uncommon, even writers for U.S. tech news media and blogs, such as Engadget, have been excited about MeeGo.

There have also been reports some Nokia executives would have still wanted to give MeeGo more time to prove its potential. Helsingin Sanomat (HS), the largest newspaper in Finland, wrote earlier this month (in Finnish, read Google’s bad translation in English) that the sudden time-out of Nokia’s CTO Rich Green would have  resulted of disputes about MeeGo.

According to HS, Green would have wanted to continue MeeGo in Nokia’s products. Nokia has not confirmed this, and according to Wall Street Journal news Green is actually taking a medical leave of absense.

Anyway, Rich Green has been very enthusiastic about Nokia N9. ”I’m interested in hearing what people say about our MeeGo phone. It’s a piece of art in many ways”, he said in my interview in April.

* * *

If, and as it seems, Nokia does not see a chance for an ecosystem and commercial potential in MeeGo anymore, why couldn’t and wouldn’t they set it free as 100% open source (except for some specific commercial drivers, etc) or separate it to a small subsidiary? That could later spin-off on its own to a new startup like they did with Sports Tracker. It’s now run by a Helsinki-based small startup called Sports Tracker Technologies Ltd.

As Pekka Oilinki suggests in his forum post ’How to save MeeGo?’:

”Or MeeGo would simply be an subsidiary of Nokia which would be allowed to create it’s own, independent, mobile ecosystem. MeeGo team would be allowed be thinking things different from ’old Nokia’ and create their own services around the platform. There are so many possibilities to go forward without the heavy bag of old Nokia thinking.”

Nokia has had an initiative called Nokia Technopolis Innovation Mill (with a few Finnish partners) where they have released ”ideas and concepts they don’t need or can’t take advantage of” for others to use, for free or a nominal price. As far as I know, Sports Tracker cost some five figure amount of euros for its developers, and I recall they got to an outside investor too.

When it spun off, Sports Tracker had over six million users. The software was and is still free, and the developers are now trying to build a business as entrepreneurs for example selling extra features, like Polar Wearlink Bluetooth heart rate transmitter. Maybe this same model could work with MeeGo?

Qt apps to Nokia’s Series 40 feature phones?

Yesterday Nokia annnounced a new initiative to bring more applications to their Series 40 mass market platofrm as Java and web applications.  This blog post or their press release don’t mention Qt at all, even though just last week in Singapore, their SVP of Developers and Marketplace unit Marco Argilenti said Qt will have an important role in bringing applications to the next billion mobile phone users.

In Nokia’s Qt blog, Daniel Kihlberg also writes… Qt will be a core component in the Nokia strategy to bring apps to the next billion”.

Many mobile and technology sites have presumed these hints mean Nokia is integrating Qt support into the Series 40 platform. This could make Qt development more interesting for developers, because it would have a future in Nokia’s portfolio even after MeeGo (or just Nokia N9) and Symbian devices. However, Nokia has been careful not to say Qt is really coming to Series 40.

Yesterday I called Nokia’s press office and asked about this. Their spokesperson said Nokia has not announced Qt for Series 40, but admited that “it would be a good guess”.

Why do people have to guess? If Nokia wants developers and publishers to invest their time and tools in Qt, it would make sense to be open about this instead of giving vague hints. Of course, you could speculate this is still very early technology wise, and current Series 40 maybe a far away from being able to run Qt apps, or maybe the schedule is very uncertain for some other reason.

In February I (and a couple of other journalists) had a quick interview with Nokia’s CTO Rich Green at Mobile World Congress (MWC). I asked about bringing Qt to Windows Phone too. Green emphasized Qt support is not coming to WP, but instead .NET, Silverlight and XNA are and also will be the tools to build apps and games on that platform.

If you’re a developer and experienced with Qt, do you believe it has potential on Series 40, and are you willing to continue with your  efforts on Qt?

More and more cheap smartphones coming

Smartphone market in Finland used to be controlled by Nokia and Symbian devices. Nokia is still the clear number one, but interesting devices from other vendors and holes in Nokia’s portfolio have brought more competition. Especially Apple iPhone and Android phones from Samsung have succeeded in the monthly top 10 rankings operators have started publishing.

A very interesting phenomenom is the invasion of very affordable Android smartphones from Chinese vendors Huawei and ZTE.

Senior services executive Panu Lehti from Elisa, one of the three mobile network operators in Finland, estimated already last November we would see new smartphones coming to market for even less than 150 euros by the summer 2011. My news piece is in Finnish  (use Google to translate it into English. It’s far from an exact translation, but you get the idea,)

This has actually come true already during this spring with ZTE Blade which they are now sellng for about 5,6€/month on 24 months subscription, or about 118€ in cash.

New Android phones from Huawei.
New Android phones from Huawei. (These images are not in same scale.)

 

Another Chinese vendor Huawei has got several models to the Finnish market, of which Ideos X5 is the most affordable one, I believe. For example Elisa is selling it for as low as 8,6€/month on 24 months subscription or about 190€ in cash.

Three weeks ago I met Hubert Hu the country manager of Huawei in Finland. I was surprised to learn they already have about 35 employes in Helsinki, and over 100 in their Nordic head office in Sweden. They’re building a business here with operators on mobile radio networks, backbone networks supporting them, and also selling USB modems and smartphones. They also plan to compete with Cisco in enterprise networking, Hubert Hu said.

* * *

Elisa’s Panu Lehti predicted last November devices are evolving so fast that features will come from high-end to mid-range and from mid-range to low-end smartphones every six months. For example, even the cheapest ZTE Blade model has a 5 megapixels camera, integrated GPS, 3G (HSPA data access) and WLAN support. Of course, the most affordable devices usually have lower build quality with more plastic, and cheaper components, such as slower CPUs and less memory (RAM).

Huawei also has one of first 4G (LTE) USB modems that also supports 3G (WCDMA / HSPA) networks. It's not available yet in Finland, because operators are just starting their commercial services.
Huawei also has one of first 4G (LTE) USB modems that also supports 3G (WCDMA / HSPA) networks. It's not available yet in Finland, because operators are just starting their commercial services.

I asked Hubert Hu, how aggressive are they going to get with pricing. He denied dropping prices would be their strategy to gain market share. According to Hubert Hu, Huawei is targeting for good combination of features, quality and tempting pricing.

Interestingly Hu also told Huawei will start making its own brand more visible, Until now especially their USB modems (or “mokkulas”, as they’re called in Finland) are sold mainly with operator branding. Huawei has many Android smartphones, for example one with a QWERTY keyboard and one with a large screen, which Finnish operators still haven’t sold. They’re also having dicussions about their 7-inch Android tablet.

I got the impression Huawei is hoping to follow, in some near future, the example of HTC, the Taiwanese vendor which used to be mainly an ODM subcontractor for mobile operators. HTC has changed their strategy quickly, because just four years ago they sold only a small amount of Windows Mobile devices directly themselves with the Qtek brand. Nowadays they are heavily pushing their HTC brand and htcsense.com cloud service, with print and TV ads even here in Finland.

* * *

Sorry about the Chinese sidetrack, back to smartphone prices:

Samsung, the number two in smartphone market share in Finland, has been focusing on the high-end with the Galaxy S  as their best selling device. However, they have also had to bring more affordable models, such as the Samsung Gio for as low as 118€ or about 5,6€/month with 24 months subscription.

Research VP Carolina Milanesi from Gartner said a few weeks ago in a smartphone and tablet seminar in Helsinki they expect the low-end of smartphones to become as cheap as 75 dollars (or 52 euros) by 2012 mainly driven by Android devices. Gartner does not expect Apple to launch a cheap iPhone, but to focus on high-end models.

Nokia is expected to respond to this new competition with more affordable Symbian Anna and later Symbian Belle devices, as the latest rumours of Nokia 500, 600 and 700 series devices suggest. Nokia does not comment product speculations and I don’t usually want to spread just rumours, but those models would seem logical after recent Nokia 702T and T7 announcements for China Mobile.  (Read here translated from Chinese into English.)

In April I had an interesting discussion with CTO of Nokia Rich Green (a 60 minutes interview; luxurious). We mostly talked about their transformation from Symbian to Windows Phone, and a little bit about MeeGo too. Nothing very new there anymore, because things change quickly. His strongest point about Windows Phone competition was that Nokia can and will differentiate from other Windows Phone vendors both with software and hardware. Green mentioned especially new material technologies coming to devices. Nokia is also appreciated for good cameras and QWERTY keyboards in many models.

This is not news anymore, but I’ll mention it as a reminder. President of Microsoft’s Windows Phone Division Andy Lees said in Mobile World Congress (MWC) back in February Nokia can customize the platform, but so that it will remain familiar to those too who have used WP devices from other vendors. Rich Green also said they have agreed about this, and  it’s an important part of building the ecosystem. (My news piece in Finnish, or translated into English. I try to put less links in Finnish in the future.)

I also asked Green whether he believes smartphones will continue to get even cheaper going forward. “I tend to think the device prices will go down, but the total outlay from the user (or the amount of money spent by consumer) will remain the same.”

Green estimated service prices ro rise to compensate the fall of device prices. “People will pay for that (services). They will have to, because it’s a part of their quote ’digital service plan'”, and he believed Nokia is strong in this area for example with Navteq maps and navigation services. More and more important stuff for smartphones will reside in the cloud.

Green also made an interesting point that Google would have wanted Nokia as their partner to get to smartphone market in developing markets.

Gartner’s Carolina Milanesi said again in Helsinki that Nokia would have made a mistake by switching to Android, because Google would have cornered them solely as a vendor of cheap smrtphones.

Symbian Anna: Too little, too late

As Symbian 3, Symbian Anna still has three home screens you can customize with background images widgets, bookmarks, apps, and contacts.
As Symbian 3, Symbian Anna still has three home screens you can customize with background images widgets, bookmarks, apps, and contacts. Please note! Screenshots here have been resized to better fit here. The original resolution in Nokia X7 and most Symbian 3/Anna devices is 360 x 640 pixels.

I have been using two Symbian Anna phones (or Symbian 3 PR 2.0, as this software release used to be called) for one week (Nokia E6) and about three weeks (Nokia X7). At first I have to say it’s a good update for Symbian making the UI faster, more responsive and visually more finished with nicer icons. However, at point it’s still too little and too late considering the competition from Apple iOS 4.x and 5.x and Google Android 2.2 and newer ones.

The web browser is a bit faster and loads sites quicker than the original one, but rendering sites is still more sluggish than in Android or iOS. Especially when Flash is used, navigating regular sites is often frustrating. But as Safari in iOS does not even support Flash, I also tried Symbian Anna’s browser without Flash. Even then iOS Safari is clearly faster and smoother.  One nice browser improvement in Symbian Anna is that you can assign tapping the right bottom corner of the touch screen to go directly back to the previous page. The default setting is still to open the preview window of previously browsed pages.

There are many other small enhancements too, such as the new virtual QWERTY keyboard when keeping the device is portrait mode. Those keys are very tiny, but sometimes this is the quickest way to write short messages, at least better than the ITU number key layout only.

In many applications and menus I start getting an impression that not everything is to blame at Symbian, when Nokia’s smartphones are lagging or not taking commands. Could it be that the bottleneck is actually having an underpowered CPU and GPU (graphics chip), not to mention too small amount of RAM memory? I’m just pondering this, because I’m not an expert in mobile chipsets.

The second Symbian Anna phone Nokia E6 is a very different case than X7. E6 has such a small screen and there’s a physical, albeit very small thumb-QWERTY keyboard that touch screen is more like a bonus, not a compulsory or even the primary way to interact with the device.

For current Symbian 3 users with Nokia C6-01, C7, E7 or N8, I’d say Symbian Anna is a needed update for all the Symbian 3 users, and will keep many of us with our Symbian smartphone for as long as there are new applications and games coming and support from new services.

Unfortunately this update is coming so late. It’s outrageous that I’ve had Nokia N8 now for over eight months, I’m still waiting for a software update that should make it work as a finished product. Last year Nokia executives were promising Nokia N8 will end talks about Nokia’s ability to make good software when it’s shipping. Many people have given up and changed to an Android smartphone or iPhone.

Symbian Anna's virtual QWERTY keyboard in the new portrait mode.
Symbian Anna's virtual QWERTY keyboard in the new portrait mode.

Many anticipated enhancements, such as tabbed browsing and more varied home screen widgets (different sizes) don’t come with this updates, but instead now we hear rumours about Symbian Belle, as reported by for example My Nokia Blog.

My love and hate relationship

For someone like, kind of an smartphone geek who has used Symbian since it’s Series 60 launch back in summer 2002, Symbian is still more familiar than Apple iOS which I find too limited, just a bunch of icons of apps, games and bookmarks, no active widgets etc. Windows Phone is very limited without multi-tasking and many popular apps, of which Spotify is the most important one for me.

Symbian Anna has updated icons, but otherwise the applications and settings menu is still same kind of a grid menu of applications and folders than before.
Symbian Anna has updated icons, but otherwise the applications and settings menu is still same kind of a grid menu of applications and folders than before.

I don’t believe Nokia will win any new Symbian users from Android, Blackberry, iOS or Windows Phone with Symbian Anna, but this can help them keep their current customers. Even though the operating system is inferior to competition in many ways, Nokia also has the best hardware in several areas too; N8 with an excellent camera and E7 with an excellent keyboard (the best one I’ve used in any smartphone). The build quality and materials are good in these high-end models too.

Of course, I’m sympathetic to Nokia’s Symbian developers and support people. It can’t be motivating to fix and improve the platform, when they have told it does not any future.

Initially I was planning to add lots of screenshots of Symbian 3 and Anna, but I noticed there already are lots of Symbian Anna reviews with screenshots. For example, check out the review at PhoneArena.com for comments and images.

Sharing 3G access for many devices

This is nothing new for mobile experts, but I thought I’d briefly share my experiences anyway. There are many ways to share a mobile (3G/GPRS) connection for many devices and users. This is handy when you only have one 3G device and or SIM card, but several devices and users.

I used to use my Symbian phone with JoikuSpot Premium application installed. It uses the WLAN connection to share the mobile connection. The free version of the application (JoikuSpot Lite) only supports HTTP/HTTPS access, but the paid Premium version supports other protocols too, so it works with e-mail, SSH and VPN remote access etc.

The biggest limitation is that JoikuSpot creates an ad hoc network which many devices such as Nintendo DS and Sony PSP do not support. Connecting to ad hoc networks is also prevented in many laptops under a strict IT policies.

In new Android smartphones and tablets, creating a Portable WiFi Hotspot a standard feature from version 2.2 onwards. It is easy to activate, see step-by-step instructions for example at Tech-Recipes.com. What’s even nicer, Android seems to support infrastructure mode too, so it can be used with pretty much every WLAN device there is.

As I don’t currently use iPhone frequently, I wouldn’t know which would a good br app for sharing the mobile connection via WLAN. Bluetooth and USB tethering are available anyway.

However, sharing the connecting with a smrtphones is often not the ideal method, because it can consume the battery in just a few hours. Lately I have been using a nice external 3G modem from the Chinese vendor Huawei. Huawei E5 (E5830) (see reviews and specs) is a MiFi, mobile WiFi access point that shares a 3G connection over a 802.11b/g network. It supports GPRS, EDGE, UMTS and HSPA on many frequencies. Very important is support for 900 MHz 3G, because this enables 3G support in Finland even in rulal areas, for example many people’s summer cottages.

Huawei E5 is small enough to fit most pockets (here pictured next to the 1 EUR coin), and weighs only about 90 grams. The LCD display could be better, but the device is easy to setup with its browser based user interface.
Huawei E5 is small enough to fit most pockets (here pictured next to the 1 EUR coin), and weighs only about 90 grams. The LCD display could be better, but the device is easy to setup with its browser based user interface.

It promises support for five concurrent users, which seems to work great. I have used this device on my brother’s summer cottage, in a middle of a forest close to small town called Karjaa (Raasepori), Finland, where Elisa has 3G (HSPA) coverage. I have downloaded PS3 updates,  surfed the web on iPad and my laptop, streamed music from Spotify. The WLAN antenna is good enough for the whole house (76 sq. meters) and its surroundings.

E5 has a battery and supports USB charging. When at a fixed location, you can have it active as long as you want, but there’s also the option for mobile use. It is easy to setup and there’s a nice web paged UI for checking the status and settings. Huawei E5 came to market already in 2009, but it has succeeded quite well in reviews, such Trustedreviews.com.

What do you think is the best way to shar your 3G connection for many devices and users?

Video needs more mobile bandwidth

Mobile operators have started launching their first commercial LTE or 4G networks. Many have argued, where is this extra bandwidth needed, as HSPA+ networks can offer up to a 20 Mbps downlink today? I believe more and more bandwidth is needed especially for video based applications and services. But it’s not only about download speeds.

I recently uploaded about a 10 minutes long 720p MPEG-4 video (shot with Canon PowerShot G12) to YouTube. The file size was almost 900 MB. Transferring this over today’s HSPA networks would be very frustrating with a maximum of 5 Mbps uplink. So even in ideal conditions, it will take about 30 minutes. This would be possible, when I am the only user in that base station cell.

Limits of especially uplink bandwidth often hit me when travelling abroad and trying to send images to our online content management system. Sometimes even images compressed for web publishing won’t go through. It would be nice send some videos online too, but usually possible only when back home on a fixed line. 3G roaming is too expensive, and WLAN access points in trade fair and other events are usually too congested.

Anyway, I guess there won’t initially be a business case for operators to offer affordable data in LTE networks for private consumers, but services for organisations could be mobile video conferencing, web conferences (such as Cisco WebEx or Microsoft Lync) and transferring large files over VPN access.

Finnish mobile and broadband operator Elisa believes mobile networks could be used for video surveillance without having to build fixed networks everywhere. There have already been many trials on this using 3G and WiMax in Finland.

But bandwidth is not the only, or many times even the most important benefit LTE brings. In many cases the big different in connection quality comes from the lower latencies which can be as low as 15 ms (milliseconds) in ideal conditions, compared to typically at least 50 ms on HSPA networks.

* * *

I got to try TeliaSonera’s LTE network in city of Turku last summer for a week. It was and is still under construction, so I could only try it inside a few blocks in downtown area. Even with that, the experience was amazing. I got a peek download rates of 47 Mbps, uplink speed of 5 Mbps and latency under 20 ms. However, it was middle of July, and I was prpbably the only user there.

Operators in Finland have been selling flat fee mobile data as ”mobile broadband” for a couple of years now. Marketing has been fierce, and operators have sold these with high promises of even 10 Mbps broadband. And sales have soared: Mobile broadband subscriptions have exceeded fixed broadband connections in Finland.

According to Finnish telecoms regulator (Ficora), there were about 1,84 million mobile broadband subscriptions by the end of 2010, over half of all the 3,2 million broadband subscriptions.

Prices start at about 8,95EUR/month for 384 kbps or 512 kbps flat-fee downlink. Recently operators have started complaining threre’s no future for this ”all-you-can-eat” data, because network capacity is becoming a problem. Especially CEO of TeliaSonera (operating in Nordic and Baltic countries, plus Spain) Lars Nyberg has given many interviews just saying flat-fee has no future. ”Those who use more, have to pay more”, Nyberg said last time I saw in Finland.

One solution to capacity issues for operators is to prioritize traffic so that business users paying more can get quality of service (QoS). When there’s free capacity, consumers are free to take advantage of it too. Finnish operators have argued QoS is now finally coming to mobile networks. It has taken many steps, since they started talking about it already when the first generation 3G (UMTS) was starting in Finland in 1999.

Two of three Finnish mobile network operators DNA and TeliaSonera have already moved to a model where they limit your bandwidth after you exceed your data limit. This applies both to private consumers and organisations.

It’s interesting to see what kind of a pricing model they come with for LTE. With higher bandwidth, charging based on data traffic can be very difficult. How does an ordinary consumer or remote worker know how much remote work or watching YouTube videos is 1, 3 or 20 gigabytes?

High roaming charges can be avoided

I’m soon going on summer vacation to Italy. My holiday base station will be the beautiful Riva del Garda for two weeks. I’ll probably want to share some images and videos to Facebook friends and read my personal e-mail, but how do you do that without paying euros per megabyte for mobile data?

My mobile operator TeliaSonera recently announced new plans for 27 EU countries and a more expensive plans for countries outside EU. Wheƒsan using a laptop, you can surf for 9,99EUR a day up to 100 MB. After that data costs 9,99 EUR per 100 MB. They have a different pricing when you use a mobile phone, and if you go outside EU.

As a funny detail , due to the daily quota it is cheaper to transfer up to 50 MB during one day than 25 MB in two days. And this they call ”easy to understand and safe” for consumers.

Elisa, the another of three mobile network operators in Finland has also introduced more affordable data roaming charges (in Finnish, sorry). Their pricing for laptop use is 15EUR up to 50 MB, and after that 15EUR for all the beginning 50 MBs. But then, if you use a mobile phone or are outside EU, there are dfferent prices. So it’s very, very different what you are used to paying in your home country.

Even though TeliaSonera has brought more reasonable charging plans, it still very expensive to and complicated access internet when roaming.

So once again I’ll have to look for wireless hotspots from hotel or elsewhere. Some (rare) hotels in Europe offer free wireless access to their customers,whereas in the U.S. It’s very common. Price can vary from 5EUR a day to as high as 30EUR for a day.

A good alternative is getting a pre-paid SIM card and a fixed data package for that, although it make take some time to find a suitable one from in the local offering. There’s a good wiki about pre-paid voice and data plans (thanks to Sami Köykkö for the hint).

I still don’t quite know the current offering in Italy and Garda lake area, but a Facebook friend tipped he had found almost an unlimited data package for about 20 euros a month from one of the largest operators, Wind. Check this site (thanks for  Petri Ojala). There are other countries and operators listed too. Not a bad deal, if you get a decent 3G connection for that.

* * *

In my opinion European operators are hurting our competivity against Asia and the U.S., because now there still are 27 different markets. I think my fixed data plan in Finland should cover the whole EU for a reasonable price.

Even though regulation is generally bad for development and free competition, I think EU should enforce rules to consumer data roaming charges too to fix this short-term issue.

One good decision from EU was to set an enforced maximum charge of 50 EUR (excluding local taxes) for data roaming. To be charged more, the customer has to choose to order extra data traffic. This way you won’t  accidentally get a data bill of hundreds or even thousands of euros which has happened to many European. And if operators want customers to spend more, they need to offer reasonable price rates.

Outside EU data roaming is even more expensive. Last December I spent a tweo weeks vacation in Thailand. Almost all of even the smallest corner shops sold pre-paid SIM cards for many operators, such as, and they could buy data access as credit. I recall 100 MB cost about 200 THB (about 4,5 EUR at that time).