Once upon a time, there was a company that dominated the mobile phone industry — it delivered the best user experience, had the snazziest and most coveted devices with the latest bells and whistles, captured the highest market share, and was the biggest and most profitable. It was extremely well regarded in the business community, and MBA students flocked to study its practices and strategies. This company was one of the darlings of the tech industry. And its name was… Nokia!
As surprising as this might sound to readers whose experience with mobile devices is limited to the past 4-5 years, the paragraph above represents very accurately a prior era. An era when Apple was just a computer company, Google was content with dominating search and online services, Microsoft was busy connecting PCs, and the other big players in the mobile world were Motorola, Sony Ericsson, Siemens, Samsung and LG.
In this post, I’ll focus mostly on Nokia’s innovations from the past few years — since those have been grossly understated by the tech blogs and mainstream media alike. In a future post, I plan to dwell more on the merits of Nokia’s strategy (e.g., the seemingly risky bet it took to partner up with Windows Phone, and the choices it made about features to include and exclude from its new Lumia phones).
To put things in perspective, this is my final, third, post in my September 2012 trilogy on smart phones and innovation. Since you are already here, please keep on reading. However, don’t forget to check later my other two posts:
Despite all the negativity and ridicule that have oftentimes accompanied Nokia over the past few years, the Finnish company has managed to preserve its focus on innovation and high quality. Even Nokia skeptics have a hard time denying the uncompromisingly high standards of the company’s build quality, and the rich feature sets of its products.
Nevertheless, it is very hard to find a comprehensive blog or article that celebrates some of the innovative breakthroughs that Nokia has had since it lost its industry leader’s luster. Somehow, the attention of the masses has invariably stayed fixated on the latest iterations from Apple. Retina display, Siri, thunderbolt connectivity — those are all things that even technophobes can easily talk about, since they have been inundated with facts by corporate PR and the general media…
…Meanwhile, somewhere in Finland, a company has been cooking up a few new goodies that deserve their own space on the pedestal of contemporary innovation. I’ve focused below on outlining my favorite 5 innovations. (Please note that I am not an engineer so I am not going to dive deep into the very technical facts — I’m mostly reviewing these from the point of view of an avid tech aficionado and a very early adopter of technology.)
Innovation #1: PureView Digital Photography
Quoting directly from a Nokia white paper:
“The Nokia PureView Pro imaging technology is the combination of a large, super high resolution 41Mpix with high performance Carl Zeiss optics. The large sensor enables pixel oversampling, which will be explained in detail in this paper but in a nutshell it means the combination of many pixels into one perfect pixel. PureView imaging technology is the result of many years of research and development and the tangible fruits of this work are amazing image quality, lossless zoom, and superior low light performance.”
Nokia first revealed PureView in its “experimental” Nokia 808 phone, released in early 2012. I call that phone experimental because it was not intended to serve as the savior of the company, at least not in terms of commercial success. Nokia 808 featured the dependable but old Symbian OS rather than Windows Phone OS, and was pretty thick as per 2012 form factor standards. However, it had a fully loaded, super-high-resolution sensor, which allowed an active area of 7728 x 5368 pixels, totaling over 41 megapixels. The phone was meant to create hype among photo enthusiasts and serve as a sort of a real-market test of the technology.
Most journalists and tech bloggers got stuck on the 41 megapixels, scratching their heads why on earth anyone would want to have that many megapixels for a casual photo image. But that was not at all Nokia’s main intention. What Nokia really aimed at was to achieve “pixel oversampling.” In simpler terms, this means combining many pixels to create a single “super” pixel. “Super” pixels allow users to keep virtually all the detail, while filtering away visual noise from the image. In layman’s terms, the images a user can take with PureView are more natural and perhaps a more accurate representation of the original subject than has ever been achieved via a phone camera before.
A second and equally important benefit of PureView is the ability to zoom digitally without sacrificing quality. The 41 megapixels mean that a user can zoom 4x and still obtain a clean, unpixelated and undistorted image, with the equivalent resolution of a 3 megapixel camera.
For the photo enthusiasts, I recommend reading the whole white paper — it explains all the technical benefits of PureView in a concise and easy-to-read style.
Below is one very revealing comparison between Nokia 808 PureView on the one hand and Apple’s iPhone 4S, Samsung’s Galaxy S III, and HTC One X on the other. The matrix represents four photos taken in low light without flash. The striking difference in detail, focus, contrast and color quality explains very clearly why PureView has become one of my favorite new innovations.
Innovation #2: Everyday NFC, Beyond Mobile Payments
Much has been said about using NFC (near-field communication) technology for mobile payments. Google has been one of the early supporters of mobile payments through NFC, pushing its Google Wallet technology. Many of the latest Android-based smart phones have built-in NFC and are Google Wallet ready. However, the road to mobile wallets is long and bumpy, and we — as consumers — are just starting to take small steps on it. As a fresh-out-the-press Wall Street Journal article comments:
“[There are] many hurdles facing widespread adoption of mobile payments. Banks, merchants and technology companies have bet billions of dollars on the technology, but those investments likely will take years to pay off.”
While we wait for mobile payments to start picking up in adoption, Nokia offers several other very useful ways to leverage NFC. My personal favorite is the ability to quickly pair a phone to other NFC-enabled devices, for easy transfer of audio/video or photos, or documents, or even your contact information. The video below demonstrates some of the most popular use cases for Nokia’s NFC:
Here is one more user-created video, demoing the pairing of a Nokia phone to an NFC speaker to play music:
“Pretty cool, but when and where would I really use this?” you may ask yourselves. Good question. But let me give you a few cases that I would personally appreciate having the ability to use NFC:
- You enter a cafe or a restaurant and want to use the free WiFi. There is an NFC logo imprinted on the table; you touch your phone on it, and you’re immediately connected to WiFi.
- You rent a car (maybe a Zipcar or a Car2Go), and want to be able to play your phone’s playlist on the car radio. You tap the phone on the dashboard, and voilà — your music is blasting through the car speakers!
- You meet someone at a house party and would like to get their contact details. Tap your phones together and you already have their phone number, email and even Facebook and Skype usernames saved to your address book.
Innovation #3: Wireless Charging
With the release of the much anticipated new Lumia 920 and 820 — the first phones to feature Windows Phone 8 — Nokia also made an important step into taking wireless charging to the mobile mainstream. Wireless charging has been used in other appliances before — Philips Sonicare electric toothbrushes charge through electromagnetic induction. Nokia builds on this by offering several options for charging a phone without plugging any cables. Nokia 920 or 820 users can simply rest their phones on their choice of charging plates, pillows and stands, and get the much needed juice back into their handsets. They can even charge up while listening to music, by resting their phones on top of the JBL PowerUp Wireless Charging Speaker.
This may sound a bit redundant — after all you still need a special dedicated charging device. But think of this as just the tip of the iceberg. As the technology gains traction, we may get to charge our phones by simply resting them on the table while sipping coffee at Starbucks, or even “borrowing” some juice from a good friend by keeping our phone pressed to their phone for a few minutes to bring that dead battery back to life.
Curious to see a demo? Here is a video that Nokia posted as part of its ad campaign for the new Lumia phones:
Innovation #4: Super Sensitive Touch — Even with Gloves on Your Hands
I am sure that most users of smart phones have run into the debacle of using their phones while wearing gloves. Add to this the inconvenience that many ladies face when trying to type on their phones with their long nails. This deficiency of the capacitive surface displays has forced many iPhone and Android users to buy unsightly special gloves with metal tips.
Nokia has decided to address this problem head-on by bringing in a Synaptics ClearPad Series 3 sensor to its new Lumia 920 phone. This new sensor allows the phone’s capacitive surface screen to react to more than just direct skin contact.
Here is a demo video of using the Lumia 920 without taking your gloves off:
Innovation #5 — Making Phones Flexible… and Bendable
This last innovation in my Top 5 Favorites list is still in an early prototype stage and will most likely not see the commercial daylight in the immediate future. However, it just shows how forward-looking Nokia can be in some of its technological endeavors. Imagine a phone that you can control not only through touch but also by flexing and bending.
Nokia’s prototype Kinetic Device aims to do that. In certain instances, bending the whole device may feel more natural to a user than swiping or tapping the screen. I can only imagine what mobile gaming would feel like if and when this technology gets widely adopted.
If you are curious to see how bending a phone works, check out the two demo videos below. Very interesting and eye-opening stuff!
Bendable phones also offer an additional advantage that may have a more immediate impact on everyday users. As a sneak preview on Geek.com from October 2011 rightly points out:
“Sturdiness is one advantage here. There will be no question about whether a flexible phone will survive a pavement drop. A collision with a hard surface isn’t likely to damage it much more than it would a banana, a shoe, or a piece of garden hose. The Nokia rep also suggested that you could actually run the device under a water faucet to clean it, without suffering any problems.”
If Nokia ever pulls this off, there will be no need for rubber or plastic cases. That will return the phone to its original pure form. It will also most likely wreak havoc among the multitude of vendors pocketing handsome profits by selling overpriced cases to the smart phone customer masses.
Did the Top 5 Favorite innovations I featured here impress you? Do you know of other recent Nokia innovations that you think should be popularized? Do you agree that Nokia deserves to be re-installed at the pedestal of great modern-day innovators? Let me know your thoughts in the Comments section.
Quick Disclosure: At the time of writing this post, I do not own stock in Nokia. However, after having followed the recent encouraging trends surrounding Nokia, I am strongly considering buying stock in that company. And here is a nice post by at least one more person who thinks the same as I do.