Nokia's turnaround hopes come to focus with new Lumia phones

CEO Stephen Elop is betting big on features such as its PureView camera and the generational shift in Windows to power Nokia's comeback.

Roger Cheng Former Executive Editor / Head of News
Roger Cheng (he/him/his) was the executive editor in charge of CNET News, managing everything from daily breaking news to in-depth investigative packages. Prior to this, he was on the telecommunications beat and wrote for Dow Jones Newswires and The Wall Street Journal for nearly a decade and got his start writing and laying out pages at a local paper in Southern California. He's a devoted Trojan alum and thinks sleep is the perfect -- if unattainable -- hobby for a parent.
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Roger Cheng
4 min read
Nokia CEO Elop on 'world's most innovative phone'
Watch this: Nokia CEO Elop on 'world's most innovative phone'

Nokia CEO Stephen Elop isn't one to shy away from bold proclamations.

"The Lumia 920 is the world's most innovative smartphone," Elop told CNET, proudly holding up the company's latest flagship device.

Strong words, but then again, this is the company that proclaimed that the "smartphone beta test was over" with the Lumia 900, a campaign that ultimately backfired on Nokia. And while supporters of Apple, Samsung, and even HTC may vehemently disagree with Elop's assessment, it's that kind of confidence that's required if he is to see his company through its current rough patch.

Elop was in town to unveil the Lumia 920 alongside its lower end brother, the Lumia 820, at an event in New York today. These phones represent the next generation of its Lumia line and a possible last shot at keeping Nokia -- and potentially Microsoft's Windows Phone operating system as a whole -- relevant in the smartphone game.

Despite critical praise, as well as some hefty marketing resources from the likes of AT&T, the Lumia 900 was only a marginal success. Nokia's other Lumia phones similarly performed well, but not earth-shatteringly well.

So expectations are high for Nokia to have a better start out of the gate with the newest Lumia phones. The flagship Lumia 920, in particular, packs a much improved camera, a display that works well even in sunlight conditions, a bigger battery, and a colorful assortment of accessories.

Elop called the phones another important step for Nokia as it works to make a name for itself -- again -- in the smartphone world.

Beyond a better product, Nokia will also get the benefit of Microsoft's simultaneous push of Windows 8. Like Windows Phone 8, Windows 8 shares a similar interface based on live tiles, and Elop said the more people who see those live tiles on their PCs and tablets, the more people will begin to appreciate the near-identical experience on their smartphone.

The move to Windows 8 is "a generational shift for Microsoft" and something Nokia can benefit from, Elop said.

Check out CNET's complete preview of the Lumia 920

"Any Windows launch is always a big moment that gets a big push," he said, adding that with the latest iteration, Microsoft will be able to tell a "family story" that includes the PC, tablets, Xbox 360, and smartphones.

Nokia Lumia 920 Nokia

While Microsoft's influence may help, Nokia still faces the hurdle of convincing consumers who have been taught to see smartphones in one way to look at something dramatically different. Rather than rows of icons, Windows Phone uses live tiles with updated information -- a refreshing interface, but one that may scare off potential customers.

Elop said the trick to selling the product isn't to focus on the differences, but to show consumers the common problems that the Lumia can address. Showing off the Lumia 920's features, he was particularly proud of the camera.

While the camera carries the PureView name, it unfortunately isn't a 41-megapixel shooter. Elop said PureView stands for the best photo experience, and in this case the Lumia 920 is tackling the problem of jittery cameras.

The Lumia 920's PureView feature is a "floating lens technology" where the camera lens actually moves and responds to jittery hand motions, ensuring a more stable image. The technology also helps out at night, brightening up images in low-light conditions, with some shots looking like they were taken by a more sophisticated DSLR.

Another problem Elop said he hopes to address with the Lumia 920 is the common visibility issue that comes with operating a smartphone in glaring sunlight. He said the phone's display is designed to light up in a way that makes it easier to view in the sun. Other features include a CityLens augmented reality app, and enhancements to its location and mapping services.

It's unclear whether these features can help Nokia. Other handset makers, notably HTC, have touted the strength of its camera with minimal success. And all the bells and whistles in the world aren't going to help Nokia if it can't get its phone into the hands of consumers. That's going to be a big problem with the iPhone 5 announcement slated for next week, which could leave Nokia's announcement a faded memory in just a week's time.

While Nokia, Microsoft, and whatever carrier partners it works with (carrier partners weren't announced today) will surely put significant resources behind the phones, it's still unclear whether they can deliver a breakout hit.

Elop is banking that people are hungry for change. "I think people are looking for something different," he said.