All Sections

Why Nokia Windows Phones are different

When Nokia announced that it was picking Windows Phone as its future because it would be too hard to differentiate its Android phones from the competition, there was some scepticism. After all, Microsoft controls so much of Windows Phone, from the hardware specification to the interface; how could Nokia do something really different when so much of Windows Phone is always the same? The first Nokia Windows Phone goes on sale this week and reviews and pre-orders both give the Nokia Lumia 800 a thumbs up; the Lumia 710 is also impressive. But how far do they show Nokia doing something different with Windows Phone?

The iconic unibody polycarbonate design and curved AMOLED screen of the Lumia 800 certainly stand out from the sea of Windows Phones handsets based on chassis already used for Android devices from other manufacturers and the changeable back on the Lumia 710 harks back to Nokia’s hugely successful Xpress-On covers. The HTC HD7 looks very like the HD2 and Evo devices, the HTC Mozart could be an HTC Desire until you turn it on. The only thing you could mistake the Lumia 800 for is Nokia’s Meego-based N9, which isn’t on sale in most countries.

Early steps in designing a Windows Phone handset that would stand out. These early design models show how neatly the openings are milled into the polycarbonate shell.

But HTC is upping its game with the unibody aluminium Titan, if you have room in your pocket for a 4.7” screen. And both HTC and Samsung have Windows Phone handsets with the faster 1.4GHz processor that makes the Lumia 800 so zippy. The Carl Zeiss lens and 8 megapixel camera do give the Lumia 800 and 701 an advantage, but other new handsets have the front-facing camera missing from the Lumia, which doesn’t have an internal gyroscope either.

Looking forward though, Nokia could be the first to offer a dual-core Windows Phone. So far, every Windows Phone handset, including the Lumia has used a single-core Snapdragon ARM chipset put together by Qualcomm; Nokia is switching to ST-Ericsson’s dual-core NovaThor which uses ARM’s own MALI-400 GPU (which can also have multiple cores) rather than the Adreno GPU in the Snapdragon, as well as Ericsson’s integrated modem. That would give Nokia a more powerful platform for flagship Windows Phone handsets. And as Windows Phone take excellent advantage of the GPU (it’s why single-core Windows Phone devices like the Lumia feel just as fast in use as a dual-core Android device), a multi-core MALI GPU could really stand out.

Further into the future, Nokia is also going to put out low-priced Windows Phone devices running the Tango version of Windows Phone, which is aimed at the developing countries where Nokia currently sells its Series 40 phones. It will be a while before Windows Phone handsets can match the 60 EURO price of the new Nokia Asha phones and when they do other budget phone makers like Huawei and ZTE will be able to make cheap devices as well. But Nokia has a huge presence in those markets and the familiar brand will have an advantage.

Nokia’s biggest advantage is also a potential problem; Nokia is the only phone OEM allowed to change the Windows Phone interface, which is what’s making it popular in the first place. Announcing the relationship with Microsoft at MWC, Nokia CEO Stephen Elop claimed “We have the ability to do customisations and extensions to the software environment that are unique and therefore differentiate.” But he also cautioned “That could be the worst possible thing we do. We are trying to build commonality in terms of user experience.”

Because of that, the interface on Nokia Windows Phone devices is familiar from other handsets with only accent colours matched to the Lumia body colours giving it a different look (below). Setup is similar; you hardly notice that you’re signing up for a Nokia account as well as setting up Windows Live because the new Nokia steps are seamlessly integrated. That Nokia account is what gets you access to the apps and services that really set Nokia phones apart (and while it’s currently possible to hack the apps to run them on other Windows Phone handsets that won’t work once Microsoft turns on the app code encryption it’s planning once enough handsets are upgraded to Mango).
 

Every handset makers has put some apps on their Windows Phone devices, but Nokia’s offerings are more attractive than most. If you have names and numbers on another phone, Nokia includes a handy Contact Transfer app to copy those over Bluetooth; that’s particularly aimed at Symbian users but it works with almost any phone. 20 exclusive free games from Electronic Arts and the ESPN Sports Hub give you some entertainment, but Nokia Music, Nokia Maps and Nokia Drive are more useful.

 

Nokia Maps has 3D views and 3D models of key locations as well as its own database of millions of locations and businesses. Nokia Drive uses Nokia Maps and adds turn-by-turn voice navigation, which is a category of apps that’s been sorely lacking on Windows Phone. Until Mango, navigation software developers had to work directly with a handset maker or mobile operator to use the GPS and no UK networks were offering navigation software; AT&T included a reasonable turn-by-turn app in the US but it had a monthly fee. There will be third-party navigation apps for Windows Phone, but you’ll have to pay because they have to licence the maps and navigation information. Nokia owns map provider Navteq so Nokia Drive is free and you can download maps for a long list of countries free over Wi-Fi.

Nokia is the only Windows Phone maker giving you free, voice-guided, turn by turn navigation
Nokia Music also gives you free content; in this case, 100 pre-built streaming ‘mix radio’ stations in a wide range of genres or custom radio stations from around 15 million tracks in the Nokia Music store based on artists you like. Product manager Mark Wheately calls this “artist seeded radio” and you can pick multiple artists to tune the mix of songs you get, so starting with Abba and Madonna will get you different music from starting with just Madonna.

You can just start listening over Wi-Fi, or you can mark up to four mix radio stations to listen to offline; the stations have 210 minutes of music each, so that’s up to 14 hours of free music that you can update regularly. Mix Radio uses the EAC+ codec, which Wheatley calls “the best codec for compression and quality” so those 14 hours of music only take up 200MB of space on the phone. You can only listen to the tracks inside Mix Radio on the phone, but there are more features coming. “I can’t talk about the features we’ll have next year,” Wheatley told Recombu, “but social is really important to us”.

One thing that’s definitely different about Nokia’s Windows Phones is that you’ll see them advertised and on sale; cinema and TV adverts, guerrilla marketing stunts, full-page ads in newspapers from operators like 3 – and actual handsets in the store when you go in to buy a new phone. There’s a formal program giving training and test devices to the people who are actually selling phones and everyone on the marketing team at Nokia UK, from marketing director John Nichols down has adopted a local retail phone store that they visit regularly. That way when a potential Windows Phone customer walks into a shop, they can see a phone in action and talk to someone who knows what it can do.

The Nokia deal is win-win for Microsoft. It gets good phones from a handset maker that understands how to work with carriers and retailers to sell devices, but as well as a potential halo effect from Nokia’s marketing muscle, Microsoft and all the other Windows Phone manufacturers can take advantage of Nokia’s relationships with developers. Windows Phone 7.5 gives developers access to features on the phone like working with the camera and running software in the background that weren’t in the original release, so there are plenty of new apps on the way already. But Nokia’s engagement with developers is helping to drive a steady stream of app announcements for Windows Phone, from Spotify to News360, that’s keeping the platform in the news. And Nokia is promising more exclusive software and services for Lumia users. Offering a combination of attractive hardware and useful software at an excellent price on phones that people can find in the shop; that could be exactly what Windows Phone needs.

Comments