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Is it the return of the Jedi? Nokia unveils new phone

IS Nokia a returned Jedi in the fiercely competitive smart phone market?

Many people, including me, seemed to think that way after the Finnish handset maker released the Lumia 920 last week.

Nokia seems intent on redefining its brand with wireless charging, the world's best phone camera technology and an adjustable screen to different environments. It wants to turn itself into a trendsetter of industrial design and innovation as it struggles for survival in a smart-phone market dominated by Samsung and Apple.

It's been an uphill battle. Nokia used to be the world's No. 1 handset brand for a decade - until last year, when relentless competition from Samsung, Apple and even China's Huawei began chipping away at its lead. Nokia has had to cut jobs, sell buildings, endure negative reports from analysts and watch its share price plummet.

Without a mature operating system, Nokia's market shares in the global smart-phone market plunged to 6.6 percent by the end of second quarter from 15.4 percent a year earlier and from more than 40 percent a few years back.

By the end of June, Samsung led the market with a 32.6 percent market share, followed by Apple, with 15.4 percent, according to US-based research firm International Data Corp.

In the high-end market, Apple's iPhone and Samsung's Galaxy models have become jie ji in China - brands most commonly seen in the hands of pedestrians on the streets. They have steadily replaced Nokia's N97 and E71 models that once enjoyed jie ji in the decade to 2009.

Nokia's share price fell to US$2.60 in New York, only a third of its valuation a year ago. Rumors began circulating that the company might be close to bankruptcy.

As everyone in the US$219 billion smart-phone market watched with fascination, Jedi seemed to bounce back.

Nokia launched its new Lumia 920 in New York last week, winning praise from industry experts and phone users for its industrial design.

"The Nokia is back," said Wei Zhong, a handset review editor for a professional magazine. "I will purchase it, without a double, as soon as they are available."

Industry analysts lavished it with praise like "impressive display" and "stand-out features" on spot lights including PureView camera, PureMotion display and wireless charging.

In my opinion, such things make Nokia unique and different from most other phones, including the hallowed iPhone.

Improved camera

Using second-generation PureView technology with Carl Zeiss optics and professional image-processing technologies used in digital cameras, Nokia's device is expected to perform well in low light environments and in video-image stabilization.

We all know that the user experience of photography on the iPhone now leads all other models, thanks to thousands of third-party applications like Camera+ and Instagram - a picture sharing application recently acquired by Facebook for US$1 billion - and Apple's own-developed iPhoto.

But they improve the user experience only through application or in the software sector. Nokia's new camera, on the other hand, has improved in the hardware sector, which is expected to really catch up the image quality of the family camera. The biggest gaps between handset photography and cameras are performance in low light, stabilization and zoom methods, which have been resolved by Nokia.

Since the releasing of Nokia 808 Pureview with 41-mega-pixels, Nokia has raised the bar on cameras and still leads in the sector, even compared with Samsung and Apple.

Adjustable screen

Nokia's PureMotion HD+ display can automatically adjust to sunlight glare and works with fingers even covered with gloves

There has been considerable discussion about whether a smart phone or tablet requires a stylus. Apple doesn't provide it because former chief executive Steve Jobs hated it and strongly believed in human fingers. On the other side, Samsung provides a stylus in many products.

The new Lumia 920 with a 4.5-inch touch-screen puts Nokia is on the side of Apple but it goes further than Jobs.

With the new technology, users can operate their handsets with gloves on in winter, which means higher accurate response for each touch.

Charging method

Nokia is using a popular standard of wireless charging so that multiple devices will work with these chargers. When software updates, music and video can all be downloaded to the phone over the air, one day you may never need to plug it in.

Near field communications is a "hot" technology item often mentioned but seldom used in real phones, except in the mobile payment sector, also called mobile wallet. It means users can finish the payment "swiping" their phones through special machines, just like swiping credit cards.

Because of the high cost of the machines and related device replacement, so-called "mobile wallet" services are just in their infancy in China. However, charging mobile phones is a daily chore for most people, so the technology is expected to catch on quickly among consumers.

With all these innovations, I believe Nokia has pulled itself back into the mainstream market as a serious competitor.

Don't underestimate the technology and patent reservations of Nokia as the world's No. 1 handset maker over so many years.

During a visit to Nokia's headquarters in Finland several years ago, I was shown many "future technologies" like next-generation touch-screen, wireless charging and foldable or wearable communications devices.

It's still too early to predict with any certainty that the Jedi will win the battle with the Force.

Nokia still depends highly on Microsoft's new operating system Windows Phone 8, which needs time to prove it's a viable choice beyond Apple's iOS and Google's Android.

Even with hardware innovation, firms can't succeed as quickly or as easily as in the past if they don't have strong and mature eco-systems. That was proven when Nokia's N97 was defeated by iPhone.

Interestingly, Apple is expected to release the more-anticipated next-generation iPhone, probably called iPhone 5, late this week. To some extent, it will decide the fate of Lumia 920 and Nokia.


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