MeeGo Preview Shows Why Nokia Embraced WP7

A little while back, when rumors of a Nokia-Microsoft partnership bubbled up, I wondered why Nokia wouldn’t wait to see how MeeGo, its high-end platform for smartphones and tablets, performed. Well, after Nokia’s much-publicized decision to embrace Windows Phone 7 (s MSFT) over MeeGo last week, early previews of MeeGo on a tablet are underscoring why Nokia (s nok) was probably right to move on.

Monday at Mobile World Congress (MWC), Intel (s INTC) previewed MeeGo, which it jointly developed with Nokia — MeeGo is a merger of Intel’s Moblin and Nokia’s Maemo projects — and the early impressions from several blogs paint the picture of an OS that’s still an immature alpha platform. Some say it has barely improved outwardly since last June’s preview at Computex. Now, this is an early developer look at the software running on an ExoPC slate. But most who saw it said MeeGo is far behind in the game, perhaps so much so that Nokia had little choice but to look elsewhere. Engadget said of the OS:

[I]t’s actually rather shocking how little seems to have been improved since June. Intel claims the software is now in an Alpha stage (it was in pre-Alpha at Computex), though we’re not even sure it is that. The live updating pane interface, which reminds us a bit of the webOS cards, is certainly a neat idea and it’s actually decently attractive, but it’s when you start to dig in deep that the glitches and the lack of applications Intel’s got at the moment become very apparent.”

Meanwhile, IntoMobile weighed in and came away similarly unimpressed:

The Intel MeeGo tablet UI was slow, buggy and you could even still see the cursor as the input method. There was no fluidity in the movements and interactions and the layout didn’t necessarily get me to the stuff I wanted in a quicker way. This is an amazing disappointment really, as Intel and Nokia have been working on the MeeGo operating system for at least a year and it is still not even close to being ready for prime time.

The operating system relies on a sliding-panels-based user interface, though many of the applications simply transport people out to a browser. The panels offer access to music, photos, applications, web video and friends, though the different parts can’t be reordered or customized at this point. Tapping on the panels opens full-screen applications, while long presses on items pull up a context menu, something more familiar from PC platforms. The Chromium-based browser doesn’t have pinch-to-zoom, though it apparently does offer cut-and-paste capabilities.

Taking a contrarian approach, Laptop Magazine is more positive about the MeeGo tablet experience, saying it shows some early promise:

We’ve enjoyed playing with MeeGo on netbooks, but we think we may like it even better on tablets. The panel interface has a lot of potential if both Intel and third party developers build on the promising features we saw this week.

But AnandTech summed it up well saying Intel’s aspirations fall seriously short of what competitors are putting out right now.

If Android is the target, MeeGo needs to make a great deal of progress in a relatively short period of time. These consumer facing smartphone/tablet OSes have to be ridiculously polished, they need to make mechanical toasters look difficult to use, and MeeGo just isn’t there yet.

It sounds like Intel, however, is still very much committed to MeeGo. “Our decision and resolve on MeeGo is only stronger,” said Renee James, senior VP and general manager of Intel’s Software and Services Group on Monday. Even as Nokia shoves MeeGo aside with an “experimental” label, Intel has few options but to be patient with MeeGo and hope it can mature quickly. It doesn’t have many other ways to break into the mobile game because few manufacturers are looking at Intel’s hardware. Nokia has said it’s looking at deploying MeeGo on automotive systems, netbooks, tablets, set-top boxes and other devices. But the problem for Intel is that it’s unclear when MeeG0 will be really ready for a wide deployment.

Compared to the polished look of Android 3.0 tablets, RIM’s PlayBook (s RIMM) and HP’s Touchpad using webOS (s HPQ), it’s hard to see how MeeGo can catch up this year, and that’s not even counting the high bar set by iOS (s AAPL). There’s still a chance down the road that MeeGo can evolve into a competitor, but Nokia clearly couldn’t wait that long. Elop wrote in his now famous “burning platform” memo that there might only be one MeeGo device ready to go this year. That’s been the major problem for Nokia recently: It just can’t seem to deliver new products with any urgency. Now after looking at the improvements in MeeGo, it’s becoming more apparent why Nokia felt time had run out on MeeGo. Now it’s up to Intel to keep the dream alive, but at this pace, it could take a while.

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