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With Nokia 808 PureView, Symbian draws final U.S. breath

Jessica Dolcourt predicts that this will be the last Symbian OS phone to set down in the U.S. This time for real.

Nokia 808 PureView
Not sure what you're seeing? That's because the Nokia 808 PureView runs the almost-defunct Symbian OS. Jessica Dolcourt/CNET

commentary Raise your hand if you know what Symbian is. Now keep it raised if you ever expected to see another phone running Nokia's mostly defunct OS in the U.S.

It may be "popular demand" that's bringing the Nokia 808 PureView smartphone to the U.S. by way of Amazon, but it sure as shooting isn't because of its operating system.

What makes the 808 PureView shine -- the sole feature that puts it on the map -- is its 41-megapixel hulk of a camera, which uses a clever technique and some larger-than-usual parts to get into the nitty-gritty details of an image.

A slow death
By rights, the Nokia 808 PureView shouldn't even be in the U.S. Nokia has given itself freely to Microsoft here, producing moderate success with the Lumia 710 and Lumia 900 Windows smartphones.

Nokia has contributed much to the smartphone world, with early looks at a front-facing camera, and the industry's first NFC phone. Symbian helped anchor Nokia, which has always been bullish on physical features, in its global strongholds.

The U.S. hasn't seen a Symbian phone since T-Mobile took an ill-fated chance on the Nokia Astound in April 2011. A sluggish and clunky Symbian 3 OS dragged down the handset's stellar 8-megapixel camera and likable hardware design.

Sluggish, clunky, and behind the times are the kiss of death in the U.S.' highly-competitive platform landscape. Not long ago, six platforms essentially collapsed into three -- iOS, Android, Windows Phone -- with a fourth one, BlackBerry, fighting for its life.

Only a few months after the Astound surfaced, Nokia was already bailing on the U.S. and Canada, and Palm has long lost its promising Web OS gamble.

Behind the 808 PureView's dazzling mega-megapixels there's still the rest of the phone, which will pretty much only work in a satisfying way on AT&T, and which U.S. citizens have made clear runs on an OS they don't want.

As far as this landmass is concerned, Symbian is dead.

Comapring the Nokia Lumia 808 PureView, HTC One X, and iPhone 4S cameras.
What's in a lens? If you're the 808 PureView, everything. CNET Asia

One last gulp of air
Yet with this Amazonian turn of events -- the forthcoming sale of the unlocked 808 PureView -- the Symbian OS is only mostly dead. And to paraphrase the great Billy Crystal, mostly dead means it's still slightly alive.

After all, Nokia CEO Stephen Elop vowed to support Symbian until 2016, at least on a worldwide basis, which means we still have three and a half years of development to go.

Make no mistake, Nokia's long goodbye doesn't mean that the company expects to sell a pile of unlocked phones in America, especially at the handset's unsubsidized rate, which more than triples what U.S. customers usually pay on contract for a high-end phone.

In fact, Nokia had initially planned to skip U.S. sales entirely.

Yet the consumer interest that could make Nokia change its mind points to a deeper strategy.

Why the heck not?
Nokia has nothing to lose from purveying the PureView on Amazon. At best it offloads some units and hitches up Nokia's brand awareness in a market where it needs exposure most. At worst, the phone bombs without much overhead and Nokia moves on to other Windows phones.

When the Finnish phone-maker dropped jaws in the big PureView unveiling at this year's Mobile World Congress, the 41-megapixel camera stole the show. The photo processing technique isn't just good for a smartphone, it's novel, and clearly, people want it.

If using the Symbian platform as a method for in-house experimentation works for Nokia, then the rest of us have nothing but gain when Nokia brings it to platforms that sell. A Nokia Windows phone with the attention-grabbing looks of the Lumia 900 and the photo-taking prowess of the 808 PureView would be a phone with clout, and one that more successful rivals have yet to imitate.

That's exactly the smartphone that Nokia's short-lived Symbian revival is helping to create.

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