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Can cameras turn the tide for Nokia and HTC?

Nokia and HTC delivered the most surprising announcements at Mobile World Congress, with renewed focus on photography. Is this enough to turn the tide for both companies?

Much of the new technology announced at Mobile World Congress in Barcelona this week had been predicted by pundits or leaked through innumerable sources in the weeks leading up to the show, but two genuine surprises came from Nokia and HTC, and both involved imaging technology.

Nokia really stunned with its 41-megapixel image sensor in the upcoming PureView 808, and impressed us with the way it intends to implement a sensor of this size. We had heard that it was preparing its largest image sensor to date, but we had assumed that this referred to a 16-megapixel shooter (give or take a few million pixels). The 41-megapixel sensor, which defaults to a 5-megapixel output resolution with three to four times lossless digital zoom, is a master-stroke we had not seen coming.

Likewise, the extent of HTC's imaging innovations were also unexpected. HTC has been improving its cameras with every new smartphone release, but this year we'll see it leap forward with the inclusion of a dedicated imaging chip in HTC's One series handsets, giving its cameras speed and a range of new features, like burst photography and the ability to take still photos while shooting video at the same time.

The Nokia PureView 808 and HTC One X. (Credit: CBSi)

But are these imaging innovations enough to turn the tide for Nokia and HTC? Both companies have been struggling lately; HTC saw a downturn in profits at the end of 2011, and Nokia has been on the ropes since the concept of the smartphone evolved with the introduction of the iPhone. Both are renowned for outstanding industrial design, both rely on fast, user-friendly operating systems, but it's the changes in cameras that will be the easiest features to sell when it comes time to print billboard posters and produce TV commercials.

And they'd be wise to focus on these features. Interest in camera phone photography has never been higher, and as with most successful smartphone elements, this success can be traced back to Apple and its iPhone. Not that Apple invented or even mastered the camera phone, but it has certainly been best at selling its virtues to those who may not have used the camera in previous phones. Apple's iPhone 4 remains the most popular "camera" on photo sharing site Flickr and is the only smartphone that rates a mention in the site's top 5.

HTC will almost certainly benefit from these imaging enhancements. As a brand, HTC has rapidly grown to being a household name and is recognised as a company that stands toe to toe with the bigger brands despite being much smaller in size and resources. When we look at last year's downturn, it seemed that HTC lost its surge of support due to its flooding the market with too many incrementally different models. While Samsung enjoyed huge success in Australia with the Galaxy S II, HTC launched three different Sensation models, the Incredible S, Desire S, Wildfire S, and its Facebook phones ChaCha and Salsa. With so many models, the unique features of each struggled to stand out, despite the excellent features in play — including improved cameras.

A simplified approach to hardware in 2012 should revive interest in HTC and give each of its releases a unique feel for its customers. A release schedule of only three handsets reminded us of HTC in 2010, when the company only launched the HTC Desire and Legend in the first half of the year, and won many fans in the process. In fact, if HTC has a successful 2012, we'd be quicker to attribute its return to form to its stripped-back roadmap than to its focus on photography.

Nokia, on the other hand, has tried this approach before. Its N8 release in 2010 was highly anticipated on the back of it having a 12-megapixel camera — the largest camera phone sensor at the time. Nokia fans and imaging enthusiasts responded in kind, with Nokia reporting its highest number of pre-orders for a single device. Initial sales were strong, with analysts estimating 3 to 4 million units sold in the first three months. However, a weak critical response for the N8 and strong competition in 2011 saw its sales nose-dive after the honeymoon period.

Does the Nokia PureView 808 stand a better chance than the N8? Sadly, probably not. Nokia knows this, too, and will be restricting sales of the 41-megapixel camera phone to Europe only at launch, with other regions to follow — presumably after Nokia can assess interest in the phone. The 808 is weighed down by the same manacle that held back the N8 — Nokia's generally unpopular Symbian platform — so while Nokia loyalists might grab an 808 at launch, it's unlikely the 808 will have legs in the long run.

In saying this, we honestly hope we are wrong. There's nothing quite like an underdog story, even in consumer technology, and to watch Nokia win over the multitudes of fans it has lost would be like watching Rocky return to form and take back the title of heavyweight champion. We'd love to see it, we're just not convinced we will.