Could Nokia’s First MeeGo Device Be the N900?

Nokia’s (s nok) N900 handset, which launched last year, is a step closer to running MeeGo, the open-source operating system that Nokia plans to challenge Apple (s aapl) and Google (s goog) in the high-end smartphone and mobile device market. The latest big development brings support for 3G calling on the N900 through the MeeGo system, raising the possibility of full, official support for Nokia’s new operating system on an old Nokia handset.

Nokia’s MeeGo effort continues to develop, while the company has spent several years in a downward market share trend, dropping from 53.8 percent percent of all smartphones sold in the final quarter of 2006 to just 38.8 percent earlier this year, according to Canalys data. Nokia still sells the bulk of feature phones globally, but these devices have lower margins, leading Nokia’s net profit to drop by 40 percent in just one year.

The company’s Symbian S60 interface appears aged when compared to touch-friendly platforms like iOS (s aapl) and Android (s goog). Symbian^3 devices, which just starting shipping last month, are Nokia’s immediate answer to the problem, but MeeGo is the company strategy for higher-end devices, which may not be limited to smartphones.

Greater MeeGo support for the N900 isn’t completely surprising, although it comes at an interesting time for Nokia. When the company merged its Maemo efforts with Intel’s (s intc) Moblin Project this February to create MeeGo, many N900 owners wondered if their Maemo device would be upgradable to MeeGo. Nokia’s message since that time has been “we’ll see,” at best, indicating that the N900 would continue to officially run Maemo, and not MeeGo. That made sense, because although MeeGo can run on ARM-powered handsets such as the N900, the platform focus is on X86-based Intel Atom-powered devices.

Over the past several months, however, the sentiment has changed as Nokia’s development team began to slowly bring greater support to the N900 for power users of the device. The official MeeGo blog reports that a future version of the operating system will support dual-booting on the N900 between both MeeGo and the Maemo platform that originally shipped with the device.

N900 Project Lead for the MeeGo effort, Harri Hakulinen, highlights what the news brings to current N900 owners, who once thought their device wouldn’t have much upgrade opportunity in the future:

On the Maemo side, there have been interesting, supporting developments going on, as well. The PR 1.3 update is quite close now, and with that you can easily dual boot between Maemo and Meego on your N900. There is also a possibility of developing applications supporting both operating systems, based on Qt and Qt Mobility APIs on the Maemo side. It means that you can develop once in PC with Qt Creator, and test your applications on both Maemo and MeeGo, directly on your N900 device!

As far as timing goes, Nokia has two important events coming up for MeeGo: a developer conference next month in Dublin and the expectation of a major MeeGo release milestone by the end of this year. Such a “milestone” may or may not be an actual device, based on my conversations with Nokia executives, which is a nebulous way of keeping options open. Next month’s MeeGo conference does have a session about the N900, however, so unless Nokia announces a new device for its MeeGo platform, the N900 is likely to be the unofficial first MeeGo device this year.

Indeed, the chances of another MeeGo handset or mobile device arriving this year are slim to none. With four new Symbian^3 devices currently on sale or arriving soon, Nokia will be focused on pushing these handsets to market through the holiday season. Intel, whose chips will power new MeeGo devices, has already tipped Nokia’s hand; an Intel executive associated to the MeeGo project reportedly said that MeeGo devices won’t arrive until 2011.

By not committing to a hardware date, Nokia can’t possibly be “late” if it doesn’t deliver a new MeeGo device in 2010. Who’s to say that the major milestone is simply a stable software release on test equipment? By improving support for MeeGo on the N900, Nokia gains the ability to say “we have a MeeGo device now” while it grabs valuable feedback on the operating system from current N900 owners. If Qt support comes to Maemo as Hakulinen mentions, developers get another test-bed for their apps, as well.

Essentially, it’s a win all around for Nokia, not to mention consumers that bought an N900 just before the device’s operating system was put on the back burner. By continuing to develop MeeGo for ARM (s armh) devices, Nokia gains an out if the Intel Atom plans don’t work out as well as both companies expect them to.

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