Nokia Brings A Camera To A Smartphone Fight

Nokia today revealed its next flagship smartphone, the Lumia 920. It's critical to the company's return to relevance and big money-making. And the secret ingredient in its sales sauce might not be what you think.

It's sporting Windows Phone 8, which has wowed critics and done a lot to remind us that there's more to life than iOS. But its clean-designed predecessor, Windows Phone 7, didn't really attract buyers by the tens of millions, nor did it dent the smartphone dominance of iOS and Google. The Windows 8 phone device could benefit from Microsoft's bigger transformation, but it's hard to imagine that putting much of a dent in Apple or Android, either.

Then there's the beautiful design, which will do a lot to convince buyers it's worth their dollars, and its neat tricks such as wireless charging, but, remember, the Palm Pre had an admirable OS and UI, lovely design, and wireless charging too, and none of that stopped you from just now thinking "Palm what, now?"

Instead what Nokia seems to be banking on is its camera. We all use our phones to snap and share photos now, rather than carrying compact cameras everywhere. The compact camera market is very ill but far from dead, and Samsung's rather desperate Galaxy Camera shows us how the tech will live on for a few years yet. But think about the last hundred casual photos you took: Most of them will be via your phone, we bet. Professional users are trying this trick too. And Flickr statistics show that the iPhone 4 is still vying for the most popular device used to take pictures on the service, competing with serious DSLR cameras.

So Nokia's bringing its PureView system to make the camera on the new Lumia 920 outperform its peers. Rather intelligently, Nokia's noted it's not all about megapixels—we've long pointed out that megapixels are a complete distraction. Instead it's all about capturing light, which is all that the very best cameras do well.

Nokia's used a larger sensor for the 8 megapixel shooter in the phone, so it performs better in lower light (more area per pixel to capture the photons shooting out from the scene in front of the camera) and should have a lower digital noise performance. It has floating optics to make image stabilization better than the mere digital trick that some image stabilization systems use, often to less satisfying results. Overall Nokia notes the camera captures "five to ten times" the amount of light than any peer smartphone camera, which means its images will be really a knockout.

And since we often use our smartphone cameras to capture those fleeting moments of joy in the bar or nightclub, or at sunset (check out Instagram's sunset shots...) or in the low light setting of a child blowing out their birthday cake candles, then the PureView system is aiming at the right idea.

But will it tempt consumers? Will they line up in electronics stores and listen to a sales person talk about the iPhone, the top line Samsung, or HTC Android units and the Lumia ... and among all the data about them (screen tech, operating system, the number of apps available, storage, UI, OS and other perks like NFC, wireless charging or its own-brand maps solution) and choose Nokia's because it has a great camera?

The PureView system is indeed a great innovation, and a welcome one, but it's an innovation on a subsystem of a device that already fits well within the lines of an established model. Nokia's added a number of other tweaks alongside the camera, including its City Lens augmented reality system, its own maps, and wireless charging. But these are also subsystem innovations, and Apple, Google, and the rest are also innovating the subsystems of their already successful phones all the time.

Don't get us wrong—the Lumia 920, along with its simpler partner the 820, are slick, admirable devices with innovative features. Nokia's even trying a little hyperbolic PR by calling them the "most innovative smartphones." But the big questions is whether that innovation is doled out in the right portions to the functions consumers care about.

[Image: Flickr user bareform]

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