Nokia's MeeGo is doomed

I spent a good chunk of last week hanging out in Dublin, Ireland for the first MeeGo Summit. There was shopping, there was drinking, there was football and there was more drinking. There were also keynote speeches, developer meetings and a variety of sit-down talks on everything from the N900 to discussion on improving customer satisfaction with mobile applications.

And yet, the most striking impression I walked away with had nothing to do with the MeeGo OS. My most common reoccurring thought was something along the lines of, “Holy hell, Nokia and Intel have a lot of money to throw at us.”

Both industry dinosaurs spent like drunken sailors with an itch. They rented out the new half-billion dollar Aviva Stadium for three days. They rented out the entire Guinness Storehouse for a night, including multiple bands and food. They bought us all tickets to a football game, provided an open bar and snacks for a thousand people for three straight nights and, to top it off, they bought us all touchscreen tablet-netbooks. The Lenovo IdeaPad S10 S3, to be specific.

The cash thrown at us would have been impressive…if it backed up anything convincing. Unfortunately, all the flash, glamor, booze & airbrushing in the world can’t cover up the smell of death. MeeGo is doomed, and Nokia with it if the suits holding the purse-strings aren’t careful.

Here are five things about the MeeGo Summit that sketched me the hell out.


From Open Source to Open Sores

 Being ‘open source’ is a sign that an operating system will be inexpensive, adaptable and far less restricted than a closed platform like iOS. Having open sores is a sign of severe medical / hygiene issues.

MeeGo is one, and has the other.

There’s no arguing that MeeGo is the most open operating system with the backing of major tech industry players. Every phase of its development has been handled online, detailed in mailing lists and forums in a way that even Android never was. This openness will win MeeGo points with Stallman-style geeks….and no one else.

Android is Open Source. MeeGo is Open Source. One of these has established a solid identity as a legitimate iOS competitor in the consumer mind-set, and one of these hasn’t. It will take years (at least 2-3) on the market before MeeGo devices will have a chance at carving a decent chunk of market away from Android.

I’m using a MeeGo tablet now. It’s loaded with 1.1, and a few hours of cobbling saw an onscreen keyboard, an office suite and a Photoshop-analog loaded. None of that stuff came stock – and the onscreen keyboard is simply Not Ready for market.

And yet, some sort of MeeGo tablet is due in early 2011. I hope Intel and Nokia find a good dermatologist before then.


MeeGo is playing the waiting game

 And Nokia may not be able to afford to play along. Profits are plunging headlong into hell.

Meanwhile, the strategy espoused by Intel VP Doug Fisher at the MeeGo Summit keynote was very long-term indeed.

Mr. Fisher envisions a world of continuous computing. You will have a browsing capable machine in your car, kitchen, living room, pocket and probably bathroom. For optimal convenience, each of these devices needs to communicate. Doug played us a charming little video that showed cartoon MeeGo-people pausing movies on their televisions, stepping out into the car and playing the movie immediately from its last pause.

The point was clear. Device synergy wins markets. Customers like it when every new gadget purchased makes their other gadgets more useful. This is one reason Apple works, and it’s the reason Acer launched that newfangled thing.

Android is as fragmented as the Balkans. Apple is as closed as a Reverend’s sphincter. MeeGo aims to be the open platform that also avoids fragmentation. All APIs standard! Any app will work for any device, display size allowing! A brand new world… that will take a few years to get here.

The main benefit of a MeeGo-style OS won’t take hold for several years. ‘Smart’ devices are still rare enough that fragmentation is forgiveable. If MeeGo can hold on and grow share at a cautious rate for the next few years, it could have a shot at real success.

But keeping the OS afloat that long will take regular infusions of cash, or significant early market success. The latter isn’t likely, and the former is only possible as long as Nokia and Intel have money.


Developers don’t trust MeeGo

 During the Summit I had the pleasure of sitting in on a developer’s conference. If you’ve ever seen someone lose three teeth to an errant baseball pitch, you have some idea of how the whole thing felt as an observer.

Ronan Maclaverty sweated while devs from all over the world asked questions he wasn’t prepared to answer. At one point, after a long explanation that failed to answer the question of why MeeGo didn’t yet have a framework for developers to sell their apps, a developer from Norway shouted out: “We don’t care about openness, we need to be able to make a living.”

Ronan- the developer advocate for MeeGo, had no response but agreement.

I talked to a lot of developers at the Summit. I drank heavily with a couple dozen of them. Inebriation breeds honest, if slightly incoherent, conversation. We talked about MeeGo and, nine times out of ten, the talk was negative.

And the tenth time? The developer was on Nokia or Intel payroll. Though they weren’t all Pro-MeeGo either, possibly as a consequence of not being eligible for Free Netbooks.

The reasons to doubt were varied. MeeGo was late to market, MeeGo showed no signs of a solid app framework, MeeGo didn’t have enough to differentiate it from the popular choices. What struck me is that they all doubted. I spent close to an hour at the end of the Ireland vs. Norway match talking to an American developer for an Anonymous Large Company (it starts with an ‘N’).

The Summit Attendees had their own special zone off to the side of the stands. We got free booze and chips until well after the game ended. Since it was during regular stadium business hours, the cashiers kept track of every dollar in charges our giant party racked up.

Both registers showed around 2,000 euros, the last time I checked them. My Dev friend, who we’ll call S, gestured grandly at the assembly of drunken coders and journalists,

“We’ve got one more year of this left, if we’re lucky. Then?”

He made a loud farting noise.


No case for

All Summit-long, I waited for someone from Intel or Nokia to give me one good reason the market needed MeeGo. Avoiding fragmentation is fine and dandy, but Google has already turned over a new leaf, while Apple has avoided the issue entirely. WP7 looks to be taking Cupertino’s route.

So we’re down to the inherent Awesomeness of MeeGo as a saving grace and, frankly, I’m just not seeing it. In fairness, OS 1.2 ought to hit soon and make things much nicer. But 1.1 was apparently finished enough that Intel / Nokia felt good about giving it to journalists on a touchscreen tablet as a review unit.

Which was a mistake. I appreciate the netbook, but getting it functional has only served to convince me of how far MeeGo is from ready.


They hired a Bono impersonator

Seriously what the hell, guys? I don’t know what surprised me more. That y’all felt a U2 cover band was the most universally acceptable music act for a convention in Dublin, Ireland. Or that you were right. Even the Germans liked it. But I can’t forgive you for making me stare at what was essentially Bono’s tomatoey balding forehead while hammered.

It was nauseating.


A Final Anecdote that Also Acts as a Biting Summation.

 The ‘free laptops’ themselves played ringleaders to a carnival of error. First, Lenovo didn’t ship enough. They had to turn back hundreds of us and beg for people to wait on the folks who wouldn’t attend the third day. A lot of people stood in line anyway.

I don’t blame them for lying.

A terrible, primal feeling takes o’er a man when a free netbook with a capacitive touchscreen is offered. It doesn’t matter if he wants or needs such a product. All that matters is that he get it because holy cow free stuff!

Anyhow, I waited like a Good Little Boy. On Day #3, 500 un-netbooked people gathered in the President’s Suite to receive our goodies. Each laptop came with a flash drive containing MeeGo 1.1 and either open source, or Broadcom WiFi drivers. While he was explaining the set-up process the Intel rep made an unfortunate phrasing choice: “You can either take the version with the open source drivers… or the version with the drivers that work.

Ever heard five hundred people groan at once? It sounds kind of like an elephant dying.

The rep ended his spiel with a plea to everyone receiving netbooks. Our end of the deal, it seemed, was to become evangelists for the operating system. To take our fancy tablets out into the world and convince our friends / fellow developers of MeeGo’s greatness.

So I’ll say this: I had fun hacking a working MeeGo OS together on my netbook. It came incomplete, so I had to hunt down pieces on my own and plug them in. I like doing that sort of crap because I am a huge nerd with lots of free time. Most People Aren’t, and MeeGo doesn’t have anything to recommend it to Most People.

As I walked out of the conference room, shiny new laptop under one arm, I heard variations of a single question echo up and down the hall.

From one nerd to another, “How long do you guess before all these machines are running Ubuntu?”