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Lumia 920’s demo builds credibility for Nokia, Windows

IMAGE DISTRIBUTED FOR NOKIA - NokiPresident CEO Stephen Elop debuts NokiLumi920 Nokia's flagship Windows Phone 8 smartphone press event New

IMAGE DISTRIBUTED FOR NOKIA - Nokia President and CEO Stephen Elop debuts the Nokia Lumia 920, Nokia's flagship Windows Phone 8 smartphone, at a press event in New York, Wednesday, Sept. 5, 2012. The Lumia 920 features a camera able to take in five times more light than competing smartphones for sharp pictures in low light without flash, and the phone comes with integrated wireless charging and a suite of location-based apps for personalized mapping and navigation. (Photo by Diane Bondareff/Invision for Nokia/AP Images)

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Updated: October 7, 2012 8:08AM

“Oh, wow.”

Yup, that was my reaction to Nokia’s big phone announcement in New York on Wednesday. Twice, and for very different reasons.

In the form of an hourlong corporate presentation for the media, the Lumia 920 looks great. Motorola had a phone event of their own on that same day in that same city, but they just announced some straightforward and incremental upgrades to the RAZR line that (for the most part) can be neatly summarized by reading off the new specs. Nokia and Microsoft left a solid impression of the Lumia as a big leap forward in the credibility of Nokia and Windows Phone 8 in a phone market that’s overshadowed by the iPhone and overcrowded by Android devices.

The 920 retains the slick styling of last year’s 900, with a new, wide iPod-style range of candy colors and even more durable construction. The back-of-the-trading-card stats: LTE, 1280x768 HD 4.5” screen, the latest Qualcomm Snapdragon S4 processor, 2000mAh battery.

The marquee improvements center on practical, tactile features, with photography at the very top of the list. The 920 the first smartphone camera I’ve ever heard of with optical image stabilization. It’s a big improvement over the purely digital approach to negating handheld camera shake, which is used by the iPhone and others. True, physical stabilization of the lens yields sharp images at slower shutter speeds. You can take good shots indoors without a flash, and in outdoor night shots, your subject will be seen against an actual background instead of floating in an inky void.

And instead of installing a dozen separate camera apps to cover every unique situation, the user can enhance the Lumia’s core camera with sophisticated third-party “Lens” plugins. These can do things as simple and familiar as making your nice, clean photo look like a Polaroid found on the floor of a bus-station mens’ room, or as computationally complex and as exotic as producing a clean image of your kid posing in front of the Giant Chrome Bean without the kid or the sculpture being blocked by one of the hundreds of other tourists milling around. The Lens shoots a sequence of photos, and then after a few seconds of deep thought it produces a composite image in which all moving objects in the series have been tracked, isolated, and erased.

It’s a welcome and refreshing approach. In cameraphones as well as conventional digital cameras, we’ve always been stuck with 100-year-old concepts. We click the shutter, expose the “film,” and get an instant JPEG. Windows Phone 8’s camera architecture feels more modern. It’s engineers banished all thoughts of a digital Polaroid camera from their minds. Instead, they seem to think of the cameraphone as an image sensor that sends a burst of numbers to a sophisticated multicore, graphics-accelerator processor, which can interpret and assemble those numbers any way the user needs it to.

For all the hype, however, the final image is the only thing that matters. Optical image stabilization is a breakthrough for a cameraphone...but let’s see if that system keeps working after someone drops their phone. And all of the best lens, sensor, and stabilization technology is wasted if the system can’t set the white balance properly and can’t produce lively, satisfying skin tones. You’ll wind up with sharp, well-lit photos of your kid, who appears to spend every daylight hour chained up in your basement. Not the sort of thing you want to post to Facebook, particularly if your family is already suspicious about your parenting skills.

Every year, more people come to rely on their phones as their sole camera. A device maker that makes photography a top-three priority has clearly thought long and hard about how modern people use their phones. So the Lumia 920‘s photo features (and their prominence in Wednesday’s presentation) are a good sign. It makes me a little more confident about the company’s other decisions. It’s like when you discover that the bathrooms in a restaurant are spotlessly-clean.

The Lumia 920 is also the first major phone with inductive charging built-in. If you put a charging plate in the spot where you normally drop your phone at the end of the day, then dropping it there also charges it up. If you place a few plates strategically around the house and office, your battery might never run down. Wireless charging has always been a good idea, but it usually requires you to carry your phone in a bulky and ugly case that contains the charging gear. It only becomes a great idea when you build it right into the phone.

It’s a great convenience feature for the Lumia, and a landmark for Qi, the company that developed the Lumia’s charging system. Qi is an existing standard that’s available to multiple device makers. The Lumia ought to work fine with most Qi-compatible charging plates, such as those already sold under the Energizer logo.

Nokia has lined up JBL to make a line of speakers and other audio products specifically for the Lumia. Tap the phone against a spot on the JBL PowerUp wireless speaker and then just drop it on top. The speaker becomes the sound output of the phone and charges the device, without plugging in a wire or cradling the phone into a dock.

That’s a far better demo of near-field communications than Samsung or anybody else has managed. NFC is widely associated with electronic wallet transactions (a feature that most consumers don’t trust) or sharing photos with someone within reach (a feature that few people think they need). The speaker demo shows why NFC rocks: two devices, when brought into contact, can conduct a complicated negotiation and transaction without any further work on the part of the user. You don’t need to activate Bluetooth on the phone, search for the speaker, pair it, and then select it as an output device. Tap. Done. Boogie.

Wednesday’s show was just as big a demo for Windows Phone 8 as it was for the new Lumia. It left me with an even deeper appreciation for what Microsoft is trying to accomplish with Windows Phone. The OS is built around a single, great idea. Windows 8 user experience isn’t based on explicit awareness of apps (as in iOS and Android); instead, it’s about immediate contexts. The Lenses feature is a key illustration. Why force the user to think of the nine different camera apps that they own, and then scroll through pages of app icons to find the one they need? A modern phone would let the user think “I want to take a photo” and then go from there.

Truly: next to Windows Phone, Android and even iOS look downright dowdy in places.

Like iOS during its first couple of years, Windows Phone is a work in progress. It still represents a single-digit sliver of mobile market share, but its credibility is definitely growing. Microsoft boasted that there are now 100,000 apps available, and almost all existing apps will run just fine on Windows Phone 8 without modification. The fact that Windows Phone 8 won’t run on last year’s Windows Phone devices certainly won’t help Microsoft hold on to the fans that they’ve already won, though.

I’m guessing from Wednesday’s presentation that Nokia has realistic goals for the Lumia. One of their buzzphrases was that “it’s time to switch.” I think they’re referring to “...from Android” instead of “...from the iPhone.”

Here’s what I mean. There was a demonstration of the camera’s image-stabilization features. A Lumia and another top smartphone were clamped to a frame to shoot side-by-side comparisons. The Lumia blew the other phone out of the water. The other phone was a Samsung Galaxy S III, not an iPhone.

During the part of the presentation in which Nokia boasted of the Lumia’s sharp styling, the company lambasted the dull, uninspired designs of competitors’ phones. An image placed the colorful and distinctive Lumia 920 against a background quilt made from a wide variety of smartphones.

Nnnnnnope! The iPhone wasn’t there, either.

We’ll see how all of this actually works out. Real conclusions must wait until I’ve had a chance to play with the 920 for a week or two.

Which brings us to that second “Oh, wow” reaction. Nokia and Microsoft put together a great demo of an interesting device. It left me and lots of other folks very excited about the future of Windows Phone. I can’t wait to get my hands on one for testing. I imagine that there’s a nonzero number of consumers who feel the same way.

And Nokia concluded the event without talking about when the Lumia 920 would ship or how much it would cost. “Within the next couple of months” was all Nokia could say.

“Oh, my” indeed. Why get everybody all juiced up without taking pre-orders (as Apple always does when they announce a new product) or at least letting customers circle a date on the calendar? It seems like a blown opportunity.

Sure, Motorola was equally cryptic about the release dates of the new RAZR HD and RAZR MAXX HD, but they shipped me a new RAZR M on Wednesday. Besides, these phones are non-revolutionary updates to an successful line of hardware that runs the world’s most popular mobile operating system. These phones aren’t as important to the future of Motorola and Android as the Lumia 920 is to the future of Nokia and Windows Phone.

I appreciate that some of this is out of Nokia’s hands. They can’t ship the 920 until Microsoft finalizes and certifies Windows Phone 8 for release. And I also understand Nokia’s choice to get the information out there ahead of Apple’s September 12 announcement of the new iPhone.

But Nokia has violated the First Law of the Carny: you take the customer’s money right after you’ve gotten them excited about what you’ve just shown them. You don’t let everybody go home with their wallets still secure in their pockets, and just hope that they all remember to come back to your tent two or three months later.

That’s a particularly bad idea when you know that there’s another carnival coming into town next week. I’ve heard that that this other show has a lady with a beard like ZZ Top and a geek who swallows a whole lamppost during his finale.

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