It was the shot heard 'round the world: on Thursday, Nokia unveiled the N9 to the world with little warning. It has certainly rocked the tech industry to its core and only now have we been able to absorb everything thanks to the initial shock finally wearing off. But you know what's even more shocking? It actually looks good.
The N9 is not only Nokia's first truly serious smartphone since arguably the N95, it's also the first tangible item to come from the company's sidelined MeeGo venture with Intel. That coupled with the impressive nature of the phone has lead to the aforementioned shock--that Nokia could actually create what looks to be an awesome phone with an OS everyone assumed would be DOA.
While some are confused as to why Nokia announced the N9 when it's supposed to unveil its first Windows Phones any day now, we don't think the N9 is just a coincidence. There are many things we see in the N9 that could eventually come to the company's Windows Phones (the Sea Ray seemed like a hype-building tease to us), and to say that our excitement has leaped upwards by more than a few notches would be a pretty massive understatement.
This is the big one. Definitely one of the most impressive qualities we've seen in the N9 so far is its innovative and astonishingly simple UI layer on top of the MeeGo goods inside. The company has dubbed the interface as 'Swipe' and it's core interface is really just that: swiping your finger across the screen. Nearly every major interaction with the phone, from switching apps to checking your notifications, is controlled by the new gesture interface.
Now don't get the wrong idea; as much as we like the Swipe UI it probably won't be translated in its entirety to a Windows Phone. That being said, we think there's still plenty of areas Nokia could implement Swipe to make Windows Phone a little more gesture friendly. Of course this leverages the murky-but-still-confirmed fact that Nokia would be able to make deeper customizations to the operating system than other OEMs thanks to their agreement with Microsoft.
One obvious implementation would be the lock screen, and it would probably be the simplest to do on Nokia's end. For those unfamiliar, watch the hands-on video above from Engadget. Another area I'd like to see Swipe in action is maybe switching between applications for multitasking. Holding down the back button, while simple, is not exactly intuitive and the operating system never suggests that the action is even there (exactly the same issue as iOS). However if Swipe were to be used for application switching it would make more sense since you're literally swiping away from one thing to do another. For example, swiping from side-to-side would directly jump to the next/last app, while a swipe from the top-down could activate the normal 'Cards' view (swiping from bottom to top may work too, but if there are hardware buttons then it could cause some headaches). Those two additions alone, the easy lock screen and multitasking, would definitely justify Swipe moving over to Windows Phone.
You may find this amusing, but we actually began writing this article right after the N9's announcement...which was before the Sea Ray showed up and ruined our speculation fun. That said, there's still plenty to take away from the N9's beautiful (and official) hardware that we could see in the Sea Ray and Nokia's other Windows Phones.
First of all, we know that the Sea Ray will be largely similar in design to the N9. Therefore we can assume it will have the same 3.9" AMOLED display, that curved Gorilla Glass on top, quadband GSM and pentaband 3G support (we'll come back to that later), 16 GB and 64 GB capacity options, support for HSDPA up to 14.4 Mbps (i.e. HSPA+ aka "4G"), an 8-megapixel Carl Zeiss camera sensor with dual-LED flash, and possibly the 1 GB of RAM if Microsoft allows it. Now to make a note about that pentaband 3G, it means the unlocked version of the Sea Ray could likely be used on any carrier in the world; carrier-specific versions are different, but if Nokia is smart they would avoid that hassle. Now there is some fine print to this: typically the 3G modems of a device are on a single chip for smartphones, and because the Sea Ray will almost definitely not use the Texas Instruments OMAP 3630 processor that the N9 does it could mean pentaband 3G won't make it to their Windows Phones. Same thing goes for the N9's HSPA+ and 1 GB of RAM.
Another hardware feature of the N9 we'd love to see make the transition to Sea Ray or other devices would be the front-facing camera. We've also heard a rumor that front-facing cameras would be present in all of the next wave of devices. Plus, if Microsoft is determined to make their Skype Phone we'd imagine a front-facing camera would be mandatory so as you can see there's plenty to suggest the feature will make the leap.
A hardware feature we haven't mentioned in the above list is one that's not quite big yet but has plenty of potential to become an industry standard: NFC (near-field communications) support. In simplistic terms, think of it as a low-energy, super-simplified Bluetooth and you'll get what it is (for more detailed info, read here). We've never found some of NFC's common uses very interesting, but Nokia has done some truly awesome work for the N9's support of the feature. As you can see in the video above, Nokia has introduced a new "Play 360" portable speaker and it's highlight feature is the stupidly-easy NFC connection mode. We've seen hands-on videos of this in action, and it's the same as the ad above: all you do is literally tap the N9 to the top of the speaker and that's it. No Bluetooth menus or waiting to connect--it's very slick. There's also a good chance we actually will see this and more NFC magic thanks to rumors hinting NFC will be supported in the next wave of devices. We would love to see the Sea Ray and Nokia's other Windows Phones make real use of the currently useless feature, and thanks to Mango it could really happen.
The MeeGo Conundrum
So why the heck is Nokia coming out with a MeeGo flagship when they've already committed to Microsoft? It's a very confusing situation, but most popular guesses are that the N9 was so deep into development that the higher-ups decided to just complete the device in order to gain anything from that spent R&D money. Recent comments from Stephen Elop have proved as much, saying that the company still would not commit to MeeGo even if the N9 proved successful. That certainly has puzzled a lot of people, but there's a pretty good reason for that. Shortly after Nokia announced their Microsoft partnership, Stephen Elop was making the interview rounds and stated that they were only on track to possibly release a single MeeGo phone in 2011. That's about as disastrous as you could think and even though some may argue Nokia's flagships are all they need, not everyone can afford a cutting-edge device and the company found a ton of success after pioneering the cheap smartphone in Symbian's glory days against Windows Mobile.
MeeGo was an incredibly ambitious and critical project for Nokia, but it also took too much time and now sadly the operating system has fallen to the back burner. In the meantime, Nokia is moving forward with Windows Phone in order to actually, you know, make money and to restore some of the damage the company has suffered from recently.
So if any of the things we've talked about in this article is what Nokia has planned for its "transition years" with Windows Phone, we are totally okay with that plan.