Okay, the title is a bit hyperbolic I’ll admit. No matter what happens at the low-end, professional digital cameras aren’t currently threatened. And I definitely don’t advocate tossing electronics into landfills, functioning or otherwise. But writing about sustainability (certainly a great passion of mine) will come at another time.
Today I want to talk about convergence, game-changing and blogger blindness.
Normally I wouldn’t write about an event like Mobile World Congress unless I was there. Which I’m not. And I won’t actually cover the event. Rather, I want to address something that came out of it.
Still-downtrodden Nokia released its pretty 808 PureView this week at MWC, and it naturally generated a great deal of buzz. A 41 megapixel camera isn’t something to easily dismiss. But after the initial hoopla faded, some have done exactly that.
Many comment that Nokia was crazy to drive this beautiful beast with Symbian Belle when Windows Phone has been positioned as the operating system of choice. Others make the odd claim that cameras are irrelevant in the mobile phone space, as ostensibly proven by the failure of Nokia’s former flagship N8 to gain significant traction. And some pass the 808 off as a simple science project.
All of those observations miss the big picture.
For one, the technology has been under development for five years according to Nokia, which indicates a Symbian legacy that may not be that easy to change. In addition, it’s also likely that Windows Phone (WP) as we now know it can’t yet power something like PureView, thanks to Microsoft’s prehistoric specifications. But this is where Nokia should be driving its differentiation in the WP space. If the company isn’t doing just that, even behind the scenes for near-future product releases, then it deserves to fail. More on that in a bit. As for Symbian Belle, after having installed it on an E7 I can honestly say it’s usable, marketable and exactly what Touch on Symbian should have looked like four years ago. That said, the concerns about its lifecycle are perfectly valid. Still, as I’ll explain in a minute, so was this release.
Second, Nokia’s inability to mainstream the N8 doesn’t by itself indicate that a unique built-in camera can’t be driver for competitiveness. Certainly, decent cameras are an expected feature of smartphones so the omission of one could be a dealbreaker (outside of some corporate and journalistic uses, that is). But the press for the N8 showed quite clearly that an above-average camera *could* separate a smartphone from the crowd. The caveat, of course, was the original version of Symbian with which the N8 shipped. Reviewers criticized the awkward OS with the same passion that they praised the camera specs.
Finally, while it’s easy to dismissively label this a “five-year science experiment” at first blush, the 808 is much more than that. Let’s ignore the obvious: that it’s an actual product instead of just the common cool Nokia concept. The technology behind the 808’s jaw-dropping imaging didn’t fade into irrelevance just because the device itself may suffer limited adoption. Indeed, Nokia has been very vocal about the 808 being just the first implementation; company spokesperson Karen Lachtansky assures us that we will see Windows Phone come into the picture at some point. Which leads to my essential premise.
Nokia has sold more digital cameras than anyone– more than many companies combined. That’s not a trivial detail here. And now it’s thrown down a gauntlet, fired a challenge at its competitors: the new standard is now 41 megapixels. That’s a quantum leap for anyone, and a likely hurdle for many. The threat isn’t limited to competitors, either; it’s also a strong message to partner Microsoft: “If you want to keep us on board, then we need to talk about your confining specifications. This is what we can do. Support it, or we may have to reconsider our platform strategy.”.
Nokia’s 808 foretells a sea-change in the electronics market. It makes us envision a world where the unintentional handoff of the camera industry from companies like Kodak to companies like Nokia drove significant changes in technology and human behavior. One where the low-end stand-alone digital camera has faded into obscurity.
Engadget calls the Nokia 808 PureView an “imaging flagship”. They go on to say:
If you haven’t been sufficiently smacked in the face with the Nokia 808 PureView’s primary selling point, let’s settle the score right now: it’s a phone for camera enthusiasts. [emphasis mine]
Engadget gets it. They’re seeing the big picture.
I read where some observers insist that the “thin is in” mentality will hinder sales of a phone with a camera bulge. But for those users focused more on casual photography than phone calls, and they actually do exist, the 808 presents less bulk than the traditional consumer-grade camera– and it means one less device to carry.
Many laugh off the concept of the ultimate convergent device. And the 808 isn’t quite there. But it proves that such convergence isn’t just a pipedream. If it can draw the final pieces together, Nokia stands to be the first to pull it off. That’s the promise of PureView.
Update: Devin Coldewey at TechCrunch explains things even better.
Note: the opinions, assessments and predictions expressed here are entirely my own. No inside knowledge of any kind from anywhere went into the writing of this article.