Can the Lumia 800 make Nokia a contender again?

Nokia as the comeback kid of 2012? A year ago, it was more likely the formerly dominant mobile maker would have spiralled into irrelevance.

Nokia as the comeback kid of 2012? A year ago, it looked more likely that the formerly dominant mobile maker would have spiralled into irrelevance by that point.

Nokia World 2010 was pretty funereal: the company had a new CEO in Stephen Elop and was still selling plenty of Symbian phones, but the atmosphere among the company's execs and attendees alike was distinctly morose, due to the surging fortunes of the iPhone and Android.

Fast-forward to Nokia World 2011, and it's a different story. Not in terms of iPhone and Android, obviously -- they're still racing ahead. But the air of optimism and confidence has returned to the company. Admittedly, executives bellowing, "AWESOME!!" or shimmying to Shakira on-stage was a quirky way of showing it, but the staff on the showfloor demoing handsets and services reflected the buoyant mood too.

Having purged many of its former execs -- it was noticeable that no-one Finnish got to speak in the keynote session -- Nokia has clearly managed to convince itself that its new Windows Phone strategy can get it back on track. Now to convince everyone else.

The Nokia Lumia 800 in particular seems a very good device. In our short hands-on time we found it solid and stylish, with a good camera ( though not best-in-class, as we found in our test ) and nippy performance. Meanwhile, Windows Phone Mango is very slick, and offers a refreshingly different alternative to iPhone and Android, even if Nokia exec Kevin Shields' on-stage verbal slapping for phones with "grids of icons" was rather overblown.

The Lumia 800 is a great Windows Phone, then, although the lack of a front-facing camera is puzzling, with Microsoft buying Skype and planning to make it a key part of its smart phone software in the near future. But just like every other Windows Phone, Facebook is integrated beautifully, and there are some good Xbox Live games available.

Just like every other Windows Phone: that's one of the challenges for Nokia. It was noticeable how the Lumia hardware specs were glossed over relatively quickly in Elop's keynote, bar the camera. That might be partly to focus more on the wider branding stuff, but is also probably because the current wave of Windows Phones are pretty similar. So why buy Nokia's model?

One of the most interesting parts of the keynote was the bit on software: how Nokia plans to use its own apps as key selling points for its devices. Nokia Drive has free turn-by-turn navigation, with the ability to store maps locally ahead of time to save on data usage. It looked great, although it looks like matching what Google has on Android with Google Maps Navigation rather than leapfrogging it.

Nokia Music is the second exclusive app for the Lumia phones, with pre-set music playlists to stream or cache locally on the device. It's actually more ambitious than it sounded in its brief keynote appearance, though: you'll be able to create your own mixes by typing in an artist and getting back a playlist of similar songs. It's Nokia's version of Pandora, which is hugely popular in the US. A good complement to having your own music collection stored on the device.

It'll be interesting to see what else Nokia comes up with on the apps front in the coming months, though: there's some augmented reality innovation going on, and Elop mentioned a partnership with Sesame Street to create exclusive apps. If Big Bird can't shift a few Windows Phones, I don't know who can.

It's too tempting to take a quick look at yesterday's announcements and jump to a snap judgement. Nokia is back, Back, BACK! It's going to slay iPhone and Android! Or: Nokia is still doomed! It won't even slay BlackBerry! The reality is that it's too early to tell. The most sensible verdict is that Nokia has at least taken the first step towards regaining its reputation by showing off a decent phone running decent software.

The next step is to sell lots of them. Yesterday's promise of marketing campaigns including "people dressed as tiles running through traffic" is more likely to cause irony-overload accidents with cars steaming into students dressed as Nokia Drive tiles, in all honesty. Big-beat TV ads touting "The Amazing Every Day" could have an impact -- it's at least a better slogan than Sony Ericsson's 'Make.Believe' -- but really it will come down to what networks and phone shops make of the Lumia.

Think of it this way: the race is on to be the phone that shop staff and phone salespeople recommend as an alternative to the iPhone. Currently, that alternative is usually an Android handset, which is why a lot of people upgrading to their first smart phone are currently walking around with HTC, Samsung and Sony Ericsson models. Nokia needs to become that alternative, or at least one of them.

In any case, the company has a shot, which is an improvement on how things felt a year ago. As ever, the wider issue is that the more competition there is between smart phone makers, the better it is for us. Apple versus Google and friends versus Microsoft and Nokia, if the latter pair are firing on all cylinders, should ensure that the pace of innovation in smart phones doesn't let up for some time to come. RIM may yet be the fourth horse in that race, but we'll have to wait to see its first BBX -powered devices to tell.

The Lumia 800 and Lumia 710 haven't saved Nokia: they've merely given it a credible foothold in the battles to come. The fact that we're looking forward to the company's second wave of Windows Phones with genuine anticipation is a sign that it's back in the game.

 

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