FINNISH cellphone manufacturer Nokia’s latest bet to restore its reputation is a smartphone with unprecedented camera functionality.
It is barely 30 months since CEO Stephen Elop wrote a watershed memo that declared that the company’s “platform is burning”. He announced at the time that Nokia would abandon its existing phone operating systems and throw in its lot with Microsoft and its Windows Phone operating system.
The result was the Lumia smartphone range, which has persistently lagged other phone brands in sales despite having arguably the best phone-based camera technology.
The new device, the Nokia Lumia 1020, unveiled at a launch event in New York on Thursday, is most notable for its 41-megapixel rear camera.
The dramatic difference it makes to the phone experience was encapsulated in a quip by Mr Elop: “We’ve made the back the new front.”
Nokia has avoided the missteps that have bedevilled the comeback of fellow troubled phone manufacturer BlackBerry.
When the Canadian company unveiled its new Z10 phone at the end of January, it announced that it would be available first in the United Arab Emirates. The American release date was kept vague, but would be before the end of March.
However, much of the interest built up during the launch period had dissipated by the time the phone came to one of the world’s most important markets.
The Lumia 1020, by contrast, will be released first in the US, on July 26. Thereafter it will arrive in China, key European markets and Latin America during the third quarter of the year.
Mr Elop told Business Times that a South African release date could not yet be given, as mobile network operators had not yet fitted it into their release schedules. It is likely to be released here in the fourth quarter of this year.
“We have specific launch dates and will have particular events when the phone comes to the country, and we’re sequencing launches according to the release schedule of operators in each country,” Mr Elop said.
“There is nothing specific delaying the launch. It’s also about resource management. To launch in the US with AT&T, we’re going to spend a certain amount of money. We’re the challenger in the market, so we have to be careful what we spend at what time.”
Last year, for the first time, Nokia fell from its perch at the top of global cellphone sales charts, giving up the leadership to Samsung. In the smartphone segment, it does not even feature in the top five. However, the Lumia range has been making inroads in both the South African and European markets.
Mr Elop confirmed that Nokia’s mid-level Asha range — a cross-over between smartphones and basic feature phones — was also gaining traction in South Africa and India.
However, he refused to be drawn on rumours of an acquisition by a rival or partner company. Both Microsoft and Huawei have been named as suitors.
Is a camera phone the cure for Nokia’s ills? Research appears to suggest otherwise. A recent survey by market research company IDC showed that a camera is ranked 15th out of 23 features that would persuade someone to buy a phone. However, this does not mean that the camera in itself is not important.
Jo Harlow, executive vice-president for Smart Devices at Nokia, pointed out that a camera did not rank high on the list only because most consumers did not understand the difference between cameras on different phones.
“Taking photos is one of the top three things consumers do with a smartphone, so focusing on imaging and a great photo-taking experience is a very relevant place for us to focus. It may not be about the camera, but being able to take great pics is a top-five reason to purchase a device.”
Nokia is working closely with app developers to gain their support for both the Lumia 1020 and for Windows Phone devices in general.
At the launch this week, Nokia announced a new imaging software development kit that provides key features of the phone to developers.
It also demonstrated a range of popular apps that have been specifically adapted or developed for the Lumia range.
David Morin, co-founder and CEO of the private social network Path, told Business Times that the appeal of working with Nokia was about values as well as the device itself.
“Path’s core values are around design and quality, and we think Nokia shares those values. It’s a design-driven company that cares deeply about quality.”
• This article was first published in Sunday Times: Business Times