Nokia's strong start for its Windows Phone handsets

Focuses on craftsmanship, "contextual knowledge," and the "next billion" users

Nokia today unveiled its first smartphones based on Microsoft's mobile OS, Windows Phone 7.5, along with bold promises and big ambitions.

Based on the twitterstream that followed the announcements, at the Nokia World conference starting today in London, many tech savvy users, bloggers and journalists were unimpressed with the new phones. But those first impressions of that select group underestimate or miss Nokia's achievements.

Even as the new phones, the Lumia 800 and 710, were being announced onstage, units were being packed at Nokia's Finnish factory and shipped to European markets. That's just eight months after new Nokia CEO Stephen Elop, a former Microsoft executive, announced Nokia would base all future smart devices on Windows Phone.

The new phones will go on sale starting in November in Europe, then a variety of Asian markets by year's end. Elop promised a "portfolio" of Windows Phone handsets for the U.S. market in early 2012, a possible hint that additional models will be announced for that market. The Lumia line will come to China in the latter half of 2012.

Elop promised a range of CDMA phones, traditionally a market it's been weak in, and support for LTE in future models.

Nokia unveiled an aggressive, global consumer marketing campaign, with advertising and store design all picking up the distinctive colored "live tiles," instead of static icons, of the Windows Phone user interface. The campaign puts a strong emphasis on a fluid user experience, highlighting the fact the tiles reveal a wealth of current, "live" information such as pending messages, missed calls, current weather, and new social media postings by contacts.

The two Windows Phone devices are the high-end Lumia 800, selling for about $580 without a carrier subsidy, and the more affordable Lumia 710, priced at about $376.

(Nokia also announced a quartet of lower-priced Symbian phones, similar to BlackBerries in their combination of screen and QWERTY keypad, but including a range of smartphone-like features. They're priced at about $85-160.)

The Lumia 800 [click here for specs] is clearly based on the sleek Nokia N9, released earlier this year. It's the one and only smartphone based on Nokia's now abandoned Meego operating system. The Lumia 700 [specs are here]doesn't seem to have a direct hardware predecessor.

Both run Windows Phone 7.5, or Mango. Both carry a 1.4Ghz single-core Qualcomm CPU and support mult-band WCDMA adn GSM/EDGE; with 14.4 Mbps HSDPA downstream and 5.76 Mbps HSUPA upstream.

The 710 has 512Mbytes of RAM, and 8Gbytes storage; the 800 has the same RAM and twice the storage capacity.

Both have a 3.7-inch 800 x 480 pixel (WVGA) display. The 710 is a TFT capacitive touch screen; the 800 has a AMOLED capactive touch screen. Both feature Nokia's ClearBlack screen technology, introduced a year ago: it's a polarizing filter that makes the screen very visible in bright light. Many reviewers rated ClearBlack comparable or better than Apple's Retina Display in the iPhone 4, despite the latter's higher pixel density.

The 710 features a 5-megapixel camera; the 800 a 8-megapixel Carl Zeiss camera; both with auto-focus and LED flash.

Yet the keynote presentations by Nokia executives were surprisingly sparse on the technical specifications. More than a few following the keynote on Twitter wrote this off as evidence of Nokia's innovation failure. "So sorry to see there's nothing really NEW from Nokia," tweeted @tinohi. "awwww how sweet Nokia's first baby steps while others go to smartphone 2.0," tweeted @vjay_21.

Instead, Nokia's focus was on the overall user experience, a function of how Nokia has combined hardware, the operating system and the first of a set of new free services: 3-D, voice-enabled turn-by-turn direction; a music service; and, partnering with ESPN, a free sports service.

Some tweets criticized or mocked Nokia's Kevin Shields, senior vice president for program and product management, for focusing so much attention on Windows Phone software. "We know about WP7," groused Peter Bright (@DrPizza), for ArsTechnica.com. "Show us the Nokia bits." "Is Kevin Shields introducing Mango or the Lumia 800? Gaaaaah," tweeted Rita El Khoury (@khouryt).

But it's the marriage in the phone of Nokia and Microsoft that is precisely what's important. The millions, even hundreds of millions, of first-time smartphone users who are Nokia's global target have never seen or even heard of the Microsoft firmware. They'll encounter it for the first time in Nokia's advertising and marketing and retail stores: a distinctive, and still under-rated, user interface now associated with one of the best-known phone brands in the world.

Elop promised Nokia will do more to "connect the real world with the virtual world" through what he called "contextual knowledge." "We can build build more relevant, more immediate experiences," he said.

The first fruits of this will be two services, Nokia Public Transportation, which gives the user live information on public transportation options and schedules in 450 cities around the world; and Nokia Live View, a form of "augmented reality" whereby the camera image is overlaid with relevant information pulled from various cloud services.

That's pretty good for eight months' work on a bet-the-future-of-the-company strategy. We'll have to see how well Nokia delivers and executes over the next 12 months.

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