Market Insight

Nokia aims to revive fortunes with a 41 megapixel Windows Phone smartphone


Nokia has unveiled its latest flagship Windows Phone smartphone, the Lumia 1020 which features a 41 megapixel camera sensor. The device will initially be available exclusively with AT&T in the US from the end of July.

The handset's camera sensor is by far the largest available on the market. The Samsung Galaxy S4 Zoom features a 16MP camera, but also comes with 10x optical zoom. The standard Galaxy S4 has a 13MP camera. Apple's iPhone 5 has an 8MP rear-facing camera.

The Lumia 1020 is the first Windows Phone-powered smartphone to feature the full Pureview experience seen on the 2012's Pureview 808.  This Symbian OS-based smartphone offered a similar camera experience but Nokia chose not to market that model heavily due to Nokia's shift from Symbian to Windows Phone. Instead, Nokia co-opted the Pureview brand into Nokia's Lumia Windows Phone range to market its different but still high quality camera hardware that delivered an 8 megapixel sensor and optical stabilisation.

Nokia has struggled to reclaim leadership in the smartphone market for several years since the introduction of the iPhone and the eventual demise of Symbian. Having disposed of its own operating systems in favour of an Microsoft's OS that offers OEM's little customization, Nokia's main avenue for differentiation and technology leadership is now in hardware.

The Lumia 1020 will act as a halo product to boost Nokia's brand appeal. IHS forecasts that this smartphone will not ship sufficient volumes to turn around the company's fortunes on its own. Nokia's share of the smartphone market will fall to three per cent in 2013, down from 5% in 2012 unless Nokia follows this halo hardware launch with a strong new smartphone portfolio across all price points in the autumn. Additionally, Nokia must continue to invest in content and services to bolster the range of Windows Phone app choice and quality.

The Lumia 1020's large sensor brings several benefits that Nokia will be keen to push with consumers. Firstly, pictures will be oversampled to 5MP using the larger sensor to hugely improve the quality of low-light pictures because it uses much more light than other smartphone cameras leading to better pictures through either exposure times or faster shutter speeds leading to a sharper image. Equally importantly, the details provided by the increased pixel density in full resolution mode enables great zoom potential without needing the bulky optics that optical zooms need for most cases. It also enables users to crop and frame photos after the fact without affecting the quality of the photo. Each photo taken on the Lumia 1020 is simultaneously captured as a full-resolution image and an over sampled 5MP image so users get the best of both worlds.

Many handset makers are using camera technology as a key differentiator in the market place and several innovative smartphone cameras are currently available. Samsung's Galaxy S4 Zoom features a bulky optical zoom. Huawei's Ascent P6 boasts a 5MP front facing camera. HTC opted out of the megapixel race on the HTC One, instead pushing its "ultrapixel" concept, which uses larger pixels for better quality rather than just more pixels. Sony offers a 12 megapixel camera on its Xperia X flagship that utilises "Exmoor" sensor technology from its camera product lines. Sony also sells its imaging sensors to many other smartphone makers including Apple.

The 1020's vast megapixel count is a significant marketing asset because consumers have been well trained that more pixels are better in digital photography. This message is far clearer and simpler than HTC's camera proposition. Also, 41 megapixels outguns even Samsung's camera-smartphone hybrids in pixel count by more than two to one, although Samsung will correctly point to it stronger but bulkier optics as an advantage. It took Nokia two years to re-engineer this technology for Windows Phone, so replicating this will not be easy for Nokia's competitors. However, Samsung and Sony can both draw on their own camera divisions' products to close this gap and have been forewarned of Nokia's camera ambitions due to the Pureview 808 release last year.

However, the issue for Nokia is that photography on smartphones is not just about having the best quality pictures. Sharing to social networks is more important to most consumers than printing photos, but Windows Phone still lacks many social imaging apps such as Vine, Snapchat and Instagram which has 130m monthly active users sharing 45m photos a day which garner 1bn like a day. This high level of engagement means that convincing Instagram users to switch from iPhone or Android to Nokia's platform will be difficult. This also reinforces the idea that the Windows Phone platform is lagging in choice and quality of applications compared to iPhone or Android. Furthermore, the popularity of Instagram's filters proves that absolute top rate picture quality is not actually important for the majority of users.

As a result, IHS believes that Nokia's 41MP technology serves two key purposes. Firstly it is a marketing and sales tool to impress consumers. Secondly, it re-establishes Nokia as a technology leader. If Nokia can gather support from the early-adopter community for its innovative technology that will go a long way to making the Nokia brand 'cool' again.