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Nokia’s Stephen Elop Battles Apple and Google With Megapixels – Wired

Nokia CEO Stephen Elop shows off the new Nokia Lumia 1020 at an event today in New York. Photo: Richard Drew/AP.

These are the days in Helsinki when the sun never seems to set. So maybe it’s not so surprising that Stephen Elop, the CEO of the beleaguered Finnish phone giant Nokia, rejects the conventional wisdom that his company is as lifeless as the salted cod served in local restaurants. Instead, he sees a moment ripe with opportunity.

Apple’s pioneering iPhone has not seen a major reset in many months. Samsung, the dominant player in the Android system, just released a flagship phone with a chaotic blur of features, none of them truly memorable.

So Nokia’s unveiling today of the Lumia 1020 represents a chance — maybe the last, best one — to make its case to users, and to demonstrate that there’s actually room for the “third ecosystem” that Elop hopes Nokia will become. The case for the previous Lumias –- the well-received WinPhone operating system, a slick design, and some other nice features — has won a foothold but not much more. For Nokia to gain true momentum, it must provide something new and big. Something that people can not get elsewhere. Something technolust-worthy. Something actually useful. To engage in Elop-speak: a true differentiator.

“The basis we’ve chosen to compete on is innovation and differentiation,” he says. “We have to set ourselves apart from the people who are leading the smartphone industry. The tonality has changed a little bit in the industry. Look at the recent products launched. Their makers say: ‘This is the next one.’ But is it that innovative? Have they really differentiated this current generation from the previous generation product?”

The Nokia 1020 — to be released on July 26 for $300 and a two-year AT&T contract — does have something genuinely unique. It boasts a suite of imaging features built around a technology called PureView, involving what Nokia describes as a “41-megapixel backside illuminated sensor.” Cut the jargon and what you get is a leap in camera tech.

As I saw first-hand at Nokia’s research center in Tampere, Finland, the PureView sensor captures so much information that you can do a detailed zoom after you take the picture. It’s like a real-time implementation of all the rigmarole that the photographer in the 1966 movie “Blow Up” went through when he noticed a detail in his photo that proved evidence to a murder. Years after the fact, information stored in these “superpixels” could unearth similarly amazing, if not incriminating, artifacts.

The Lumia 1020 is also augmented with a Xenon flash that grabs sharp pictures in low light that the iPhone and the Samsung portray as blurs. Nokia has augmented its already excellent capabilities in image stabilization to allow users to capture steady high-def video, even in rocky conditions. And it will be a platform for an endless parade of nifty features. One example available on launch is the ability to use part of an image as an animated GIF while the rest of the image remains a static photo.

PureView really is a differentiator. When I got a demo of it early last year in Nokia’s research lab, it was clear that this could make a difference to a lot of users. After all, taking photos is a core smart phone activity. But I was disappointed to learn that Nokia’s first implementation of the technology would not be appear in the Lumia series of Windows phones that represented the company’s future. Instead, Nokia chose to put its most amazing advances in the PureView 808 — a phone running the doomed Symbian operating system. It was like opening a new Danny Meyer restaurant in Chernobyl.

Elop defends the move now by saying that the 808 was successful on its own terms. “It sold well,” he said, while not giving any numbers. (But I’ll bet most of you have never seen one in the wild.) Its photography-crazy users loved it. But 808’s real value was as a test bed for PureView. Nokia was able to gauge from real users how to improve the technology for the next iteration, the one now on the 1020.

Sure enough, this version of PureView seems ready for prime time. To accommodate the advanced camera, the 808 had a hideous unsightly bulge in its middle. It looked like it was momentarily about to give birth to an MP3 player. The 1020 has only a modest rise where around the lens — it reminds me of the stoic eye of HAL in Kubrick’s “2001” — and is around the same thickness as the trim Lumia 920.

If this powerful imaging technology had been part of the last iPhone release, the internet would have exploded with Blogosphere hosannas and the lines outside Apple stores would have clogged entire metropolitan areas. But can innovation and differentiation really help Nokia make today’s one-on-one smartphone battle into something more à trois? Skeptics — and plenty of people not normally inclined to skepticism — will probably stick to their view that at this point there is nothing Nokia can do to turn things around, and that the Finnish giant will wind up, with Blackberry, in high-tech’s dustbin.

But Elop has a point to make about tables turning. “If you had asked anyone in the smartphone world on January 1, 2007, they would have said Nokia was incomparable,” he says. “It had such a strong share, so much lock-in, so much brand awareness that no one could challenge it. And yet innovation, disorientation, disruption changed that. It set Nokia on an entirely different trajectory.”

That trajectory turned downward so precipitously that Nokia’s very survival is at stake. But Elop believes that PureView — along with future differentiators he says are in the works — will help him paint a very different picture. With 41 megapixels.

Nokia’s Stephen Elop Battles Apple and Google With Megapixels – Wired
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