It’s Not A Phone, It’s A Mobile Computer

Nokia N900
Credit: mackarus [CC BY]

People keep asking me about my new “cell phone,” but the Nokia N900 isn’t a phone. It’s a handheld, mobile computer. Calling it a phone is like calling a house a bed—sleeping is just one thing you do inside a house.

I became interested in the Nokia N900 in the fall, and after a several good reviews, I ordered one off eBay earlier this month. The N900 is the first from a series of Nokia Internet tablets to have cellular capabilities, but the SIM card doesn’t overshadow all the other things you can do with the device—it just frees you to connect to the Internet on the go. The day after it arrived, I signed up with WIND Mobile (another contributing factor to the purchase: leaving Rogers). The combination of a powerful mobile computer, and unlimited 3G data for just $35/month has changed the way I use the Internet.

Yes, it can handle phone calls and SMS messages, but it’s totally arbitrary that a call is a cellular call as opposed to over Google Talk or SIP / VOIP, or that a message is SMS rather than IM; the same applications are used in either case. I can use it as a cell phone, but I can also use it as an Internet tablet, GPS, digital audio player, camera, etc.

Maemo, the operating system that comes installed on the N900, is a fully-featured GNU/Linux distribution. Android shares a common (ish) kernel with other Linux-based distributions, but Maemo has much more in common with the operating system running on my laptop. It uses the same system for finding and installing new software, and it has a lot of the same applications available, since it’s easier to port from other GNU/Linux distributions. Rather than forcing developers to write Java “apps,” Maemo makes a variety of common development environments available. Thus, it’s the first platform to see a Firefox mobile release.

It’s a computer, not a phone. And it’s not just semantics. When we think of mobile computers as merely “phones,” we tolerate restrictions that we would otherwise reject on our computers. How many iPhone users would come to Apple’s defence if they instituted the same strict policies and arbitrary limitations on third-party applications for a Macbook as they do on their mobile computer? (Update: I spoke literally hours too soon.) Recognizing that these devices are really mobile computers is an essential step to gaining control over our mobile computing. Carriers and handset makers control our phones. We should control our own computers.

Google has tried to replace the term “smartphone” with it’s own buzzword — “superphone” — but it’s not just the “smart” part that’s become inadequate. It doesn’t make sense to call these devices “cell phones” anymore than it would make sense to call the buildings we live in “beds.” I have a handheld computer, and my carrier is my ISP.

ps I wrote and edited this post on my N900 using MaStory