Has Nokia refound its mojo? And is Microsoft responsible?

Years ago, there was only one, the phone to rule all phones. No body ever asked for a phone. They asked for a Nokia. Saudi Arabia was the land of Nokia. And the rest of the Gulf wasn’t far behind. One tale I was told about the Finnish phone behemoth was that Saudi was the largest market worldwide for Nokia’s Communicator series of phones.

Saudi ten years back. Yes, Saudis loved their Nokia Communicators (this isn’t a Communicator but they’re about the same size).

And the came Apple, followed by Samsung, HTC, Blackberry and other mobile devices of all shapes and form. And Nokia was no longer the same company that it was before.

But then, there was a change. Nokia came together with Microsoft. And something new was born.

The Lumia 920 in all its glory. Yellow is optional.

The portents didn’t speak well for the partnership between the two companies. I remember owning a Windows-based SPV phone about ten years ago. While the phone did last, it wasn’t the easiest device to use. Microsoft hasn’t had a good track record when it comes to mobile operating systems. And Nokia’s Symbian has died a death. How would the two companies compete with Apple’s iOS software and Google’s Android platform?

As a reformed optimist and a gadget monster I took the plunge and ordered a new Nokia Lumia 920 on its release last month. I liked the look of the hardware – the Lumia has a 768 by 1280 pixel screen which is slightly larger than the iPhone 4, a 1.5GHz dual-core Qualcomm processor, 32Gb of storage, an eight megapixel Carl Zeiss lens camera, NFC, Bluetooth, HSDPA and HSUPA connectivity and all the Wi-Fi that you’d need. The phone is chunkier than most, weighing in at 185 grams and with a dimension of 130.3 by 70.8 and 10.7mm, but I like my phones chunky and plumpy.

Going beyond the hardware, what I liked most about the new Nokia Windows-based lineup was the software. The operating system is simple to use with tiles on the front page to heavily-used applications and functions. The front screen can be easily customized to meet the needs of the user, it’s intuitive and copying files to and from the phone is so simple (though Microsoft still needs to work on the Windows Phone app which tends to crash when copying music). I can also sync files to my desktop and laptop using Microsoft’s Skydrive. All in all, the phone’s operating system is a joy to use and Microsoft is heading in the right direction when it comes to usability (though I’d love to see more shortcut buttons or tiles.

But there’s more good stuff to come. Nokia has long been a leader in the maps space following its acquisition of Navteq in 2008. The maps on the Lumia 920 are rich with detail including 3D rendering, they’re simple to use and most importantly they’re full of detail. With Nokia Drive you can do away with any other GPS software and hardware you may use for driving. Again, the system is easy to use, the voice directions are clear and I haven’t found any glaring mistakes in terms of geography and topography.

The most fun thing about my Nokia 920 experience so far is the Nokia City Lens, which is the smartest use of augmented reality so far. Basically, the City Lens allows you to look at the screen and view what locations of interest are nearby (be they restaurants, hotel, museums, shops, or even famous sights). Once you click on a point of interest you’ll be able to view pictures, read reviews and be guided there by Nokia Maps. Much of the content on Nokia City Lens is consumer-generated, which is going to make the application even more interesting as time goes by. As my brief explanation hasn’t the app any justice have a look at the embedded video.

I have tried the camera and true to form Nokia’s cameras as wonderfully clear. There’s much more I need to play around with on the camera settings, but I leave the photography to my talented wife.

And the downside? The applications, or lack of, currently available for the phone. There’s no Instagram as of yet and no native Twitter application, Whatsapp is still unstable, and compared to the iPhone and Android-based phones Microsoft needs to do more to convince developers to create apps for Windows 8 Mobile.

Having tested the phone both at home and abroad I know that Nokia is onto a winner. The Windows 8 environment will grow and develop with time and Nokia has bet its future on the operating system (it’s only crashed twice, which is remarkable for a Microsoft device). I’d love to see Microsoft publicize the operating system more (they’ve been surprisingly quiet in talking about Windows 8 Mobile despite it being crucial to their vision of a connected PC-phone-tablet ecosystem).

The question is now, will Nokia pick itself up again in the Gulf? While Blackberry is dying a death globally, the Canadian manufacturer is still doing remarkably well in the Gulf due in part to its Blackberry Messenger Service. Apple retains bragging rights to the best smartphone around, despite (in my view) doing remarkably little with the device since the launch of the 3GS. And then there’s Google. Can anyone stop the search giant with its Android operating system?

I’m certainly hoping that Nokia comes back strong. The product is one to shout about. Will its marketing be strong and bold enough to cut through the disappointment and ambivalence that many people feel about Nokia today in the Gulf to rediscover the love affair that they once had with the Finnish giant? Toivotaan niin Nokia! Game on Apple!

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