The Nokia N9 is a visitor from an alternate universe, where Nokia never ditched MeeGo and Symbian in favour of Windows Phone. In its reality, buttons have atrophied away like baby toes, to be replaced by swipe gestures.
The N9 certainly looks intriguing in the smooth, rounded press shots released by Nokia. You can also see it being operated by a manicured hand on the N9 website.
The N9 has unlock, camera and volume buttons on the side, but no home button on the front. Instead, it invites you to swap between three home screens by swiping into the display from the bezel that surrounds it.
The first home screen shows a list of events from your social networks, as well as text messages and missed calls. The second is a grid of rounded icons that look similar to those on the iPhone 4, which link to your apps. The third is a grid of large thumbnails showing what apps you currently have open, so you can multi-task and switch between them.
We've seen the N9's OS, MeeGo, on a prototype Intel tablet. But the version that's on the N9 looks totally different to the ones we've pawed. It even appears to use the traditional Nokia font that's both loved and loathed.
Based on the videos we've seen, when you're using an app a long, slow swipe from the right-hand side returns you to the grid of icons. Nokia also says a slow swipe up from the bottom of the screen reveals a shortcut bar with icons for calls, texts, the camera and maps. That sounds like a similar feature on the Palm Pre.
In our experience using similar gestures on the Pre, BlackBerry PlayBook and HP TouchPad, gestures like this take some time to get used to. But once you've got them firmly ensconced in your muscle memory, they're fast and intuitive.
The lack of buttons on the front of the N9, and the curved convex 3.9-inch glass screen, do give the phone a sharp look -- at least based on the press shots we've seen. But much depends on how smooth the gestures are when we get the phone in our hands.
The N9 also has notifications on the lock screen that remind us of those announced by Apple for the next version of the iPhone's software, iOS 5. Your messages and missed calls appear on the lock screen, where you can swipe them to open the relevant app immediately.
Based on our experience with the camera on the Nokia N8, we're looking forward to trying the N9's snapper. It's an 8-megapixel camera (down from the N8's 12) that shoots HD videos, but it's Nokia's grasp of optics that makes its cameras great. Hopefully the Carl Zeiss lens on the N9 won't let us down.
We're always up for a fresh-baked new phone, but the fact that the N9 uses software that even Nokia has all but given up on is a major downer. Nokia says it will come pre-loaded with games like Angry Birds, but we think it's unlikely you'll have the option to download many more. Although the N9 will have an app store, there's very little motivation for developers to invest the hard work in creating apps for an OS that's already a thing of the past.
Because of that, the N9 looks hobbled before it's even heard the starting gun. With a cool-looking case, the N9 is likely to cost a mint. But we can't imagine investing our cash or our hard-earned upgrade on the N9. We won't be able to share our favourite apps with friends, or expect frequent updates.
We're looking forward to Nokia's resurgence as much as anyone. We even think its enthusiastic hobbit of a CEO, Stephen Elop, is likely to pull it off. But even he argues the game is no longer about the phone -- it's about the software ecosystem. The N9 is from an ecosystem that's barely present on this planet, and is being wiped out faster than a Brazilian rainforest.
Edited by Nick Hide