Wednesday, 24 November 2010

N900: Ah, Linux in your pocket

I recently, as anybody who keeps an eye on this blog may have noticed, got my hands on an N97 mini and found it nice but wanting.

Then, in a rare (not being sarcastic, it really was rare) moment of brain-fartery I left it on the roof of my friend's car, from where it hit the ground and was run over by a tram in Melbourne.

Which left me back on the old N95. Which is now unusable because the ribbon cable to the screen broke.

Which, of course, left me needing a replacement and, despite the availability of the brand new Nokia N8 and a swag of new Android devices, I went for something with confirmed power but an uncertain future. Oh, and a keyboard and a Debian-based operating system.

I got a Nokia N900.

This is therefore my usual rambling sort of things-I've-noticed post, and this time not only am I writing it on the device, I'll be posting it as well, using the MaStory blogging app.

So anything could happen.

It is, first and foremost, a Linux computer. This is very, very cool. It means that all sorts of things that wouldn't normally be possible, are. Application having problems? Run it from the command line and see what it says. Try doing that on a different platform!

I am, right now, cheating slightly by writing a few paragraphs from my desktop computer, using vim, after ssh-ing into the N900. Yes, that's all possible.

This is not a phone that grew up and wants to be a computer - this is a computer that shrank enough to be a phone.

The build quality is up to Nokia's usual standard, which is to say: potentially great, but on this device about 95 per cent of great. There are a couple of little niggling things to do with fit and close lines, but generally absolutely solid. The biggest worry is the neat little kickstand that folds out from around the camera housing. It just feels fragile, quite apart from being off-centre.

Now, some specifics:

The screen isn't up to capacitive levels of sensitivity, but is rather good and the image quality is truly stellar. Everything is fantastically crisp.

Camera: great. Software interface less so, and I am disappointed to see that the excellent night mode available on the N95 and N97, with the same camera hardware, is not there. Dual LED flash very nice and there's a program available to use it as a torch.

Speakers: as good as the old benchmark N95, just about.

Text entry: for some reason, there's no on-screen display of the old Nokia standard 'abc/Abc/ABC' lower-case, first-letter-upper, all-upper notification. As it sometimes but not always automatically capitalises first letters (there's a setting for that), it would be nice to know, you know?

The Notes application is a different approach to the 'list of simple notes' application in S60, and damn it's good. A proper little rich-text word processor. I'm using it here (or I was, until I copied and pasted - which is not only possible, but uses desktop-standard keybindings - into MaStory.

Which brings me to: the keyboard. It's so much better than the N97 mini's keyboard, actually friendly to my slightly long thumbnails, good feel and nice rounded profile for easier usage. Could be even more pronounced, but that would probably impact upon the already, um 'noticeable' thickness of the device. Also, having the apostrophe needing an extra key press is a bit annoying for those of us who know how to use it properly. The only other issue is that, as All About Symbian noted, it would be slightly easier to use if taller.

And then there's the writing aids. Has auto-completion but it's quite weak. Has no auto-correction. Having said that, it copes fairly intelligently with punctuation and seems to learn for the auto-completion, which is nice and will no doubt be quite helpful.

Now: Nokia didn't provide any MMS functionality on this device. A fantastic camera, all data options, full multi-tasking, but no MMS. Didn't they *learn* from the first iPhone? There is, however, fMMS, from The Community Of Developers, to fill the gap. Nokia have even released a semi-official statement saying, in essence, "We're not going to provide MMS functionality because, well, gee, isn't it just *swell* someone in the community did our work for us?"

Now, the first problem with that approach is the comment from early in the development cycle to the effect that "I can't make it work yet because it's a proprietary Nokia API." The second problem is the hell of a time I had making it work. I managed it, but I still have no idea how (I think you have to have the right GPRS and WAP APNs configured, but *not* an APN for MMS, let fMMS take care of it).

The third problem is the fact that, as I was swearing with it, I found that my current provider, Crazy John's, don't provide MMS configuration settings for the N900 because it's not necessary on a device that can't do that. Crazy John's have quite another problem in insisting upon doing everything with auto-config SMS instead of just providing a list of bloody settings (you can find them if you go to the Android FAQ pages) but you should be able to see my point: no official supply means no support. Good one, Nokia, for ignoring a fundamental piece of a modern phone.

Oh yes, and not only but also: WTF were you thinking, Nokia, when you built Ovi Maps for Maemo with no provision to keep, let alone sync, bookmarks? There is a workaround - have a Contact for each bookmark, with full address, and it will give you a little globe icon that opens that place in Maps. But oh dear, for a company that invested so much (buying NAVTEQ, for a start) in GPS and mapping - just not good enough.

Moving on.

Multiple homescreens: I'm not convinced it's the greatest idea of all time. There are more efficient ways of launching applications, and it's really only an advantage for dynamic widgets. I think that HTC's way of doing an overview - thumbnails of desktops filled with widgets - is an excellent idea if you're going to have multiple screens. The N900 could do this - it would just be a modification of the current, fully dynamic and live task manager view of running apps. Damn, I wish I had the skills to program that.

There's a problem with some Qt applications. After spending huge amounts on purchasing Trolltech and their Qt, and coming up with two cross-platform device strategies, some twat at Nokia let a release out the door with a default setting for some text fields of black on black. Truly, WTF?

When it was launched, it was notorious for not having any form of portrait mode. That has slowly improved, but where it does appear there are bugs and issues. In typical Nokia fashion, we find a huge WTF in the web browser which, in portrait, gives you a couple of option buttons but no way to access others until you rotate back to landscape. So you can't, for example, close a web page. This is annoying.

Overall, I am enjoying it immensely. None of the twitter clients are as good as Gravity on Symbian (not much is) and at least one of them still hasn't been updated for OAuth and some of them don't work very well at all and the best of them isn't in the repositories yet, but that's a niggling issue next to the sheer power of the device.

Unfortunately, I also have to say "potential" about a device which has run up against a change in Nokia strategy and may be orphaned very soon, but there are some very good developers and they are doing some very good stuff.

And oh, the shiny is great with this one.

Treating drivers as simpletons is a major cause of road accidents

All of a sudden, five stories from the Queensland Times appeared in my RSS reader.

They are, in the order in which they appeared: Speed cameras do help save lives, Drivers disregard the Fatal Four, Forget the phone, you're driving, Enough is enough - Drive 2 Stay Alive and Count the cost of careless driving.

Spot the theme?

It appears that Drive 2 Stay Alive (I will withhold my comments on cutesy SMS-like usage of homonymic numbers) is a program adopted by the QT to encourage road safety, and all five of the articles list the other four in a "Related links" box right at the top.

Which is all very admirable - the intent, I mean, not the internet formatting. I really can't fault the QT for public interest journalism in this matter.

In fact, it's fantastic that the last-named of these articles points out the costs of road accidents aren't just in fatalities, and include medical treatment, disability care, clean-up bills and legal costs as well as costs to the economy in loss of labour (I've always wondered how they calculate that...)

But I would like to make a few points, because my cynicism doth runneth over.

Over the next four weeks, we will provide informative features to help you stay alive on our roads, and by taking the online pledge, you are saying enough people have died needlessly on our roads.

Umm... I will withhold my opinion of online pledges, as well, but admirable, admirable.

Let me get into the meat of criticism, now, and it's exemplified for me by this statement:

Colin Goodsell from the RACQ said distraction while behind the wheel was one of the top causes of accidents on Queensland roads aside from the fatal four – speeding, drink driving, seatbelts and fatigue.

Okay, first of all, not wearing a seatbelt is not generally a cause of accidents. It can be - you could lose control because you moved relative to the seat in a corner or while braking - but it's generally a cause of getting hurt in an accident, not a cause of the accident happening. Language like this may be approved by marketing and may present a united front, but I'm not sure it helps.

Also, if the "fatal four" is speeding, drink driving, seatbelts and fatigue, is it a "fatal three" for motorcyclists or do they have a different set?

And then there is the argument that distraction is the biggest cause because if you were truly paying attention then, either you wouldn't be speeding or it wouldn't be as a big a problem, you wouldn't be drink driving and you would be managing your fatigue.

All of these road safety campaigns, possibly in an attempt to get the message across, over-simplify matters so badly that you're left with the impression of a collection of tick-a-box, exclusive and non-related options. I have been complaining for years that some of the most dangerous drivers I meet on the roads are the ones who aren't speeding, and I've been much more comfortable in cars where the driver was speeding but competent than in some cars where the driver just wasn't paying attention to much except the speedometer, the road signs and the conversation.

I am convinced that ignoring the interaction between all cognitive factors and driving decisions is just going to lead to trouble.

It's also a major factor in my complaint against the anti-speeding arguments and the anti-speeding initiatives and the crowing of authorities when a rise in speed cameras is correlated (say it with me: "Correlation does not equal causation") with a reduction in road fatalities.

If they don't, in public, consider the possibility that the reduction is not because people have decided to not speed but because they are keeping a much sharper eye out for cameras and camera vans and are therefore more likely to spot and respond to other dangerous situations, then I just aren't going to take them seriously.

In fact, the "Speed cameras do save lives" article is a classic of waffling, unsubstantiated claims that would get laughed out of any research proposal. "Police have linked...", "increase in speeding detection... has been credited..." Oh, puh-lease.

And then there's the almost throwaway line "... more people driving to the speed limit and road conditions."

Just try and convince me that the two are necessarily (to use the word in its nice and exact meaning) related. Go ahead, just try. Most articles run like that: "Speeding.... speed limit... too fast... dangerous.... road conditions." Slipped in almost as an afterthought, the one most important factor - road conditions. Driving to the speed limit at all times is just a recipe for disaster the next time there's a decent storm.

What I would like to see, in all of this pleading, public displays of hurt bewilderment and patriarchal trumpeting from the various authorities, is this exhortation: Take responsibility for your own driving, and look out for everyone else.

That's it. Drop all this talk of specifics, mention it when it's relevant to individual situations, but just keep reminding people that, actually, they have a "licence" to drive, not a "right", and they are in command of several tonnes of metal travelling at speeds never before attained by human beings and in excess of what our physiology and neurology evolved to cope with.

Start treating drivers like complicated, thinking, sentient human beings and, just perhaps, they'll start behaving like it.

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