The Royal Nokia Screw-Up That Shouldn't Have Been

By Farhad Manjoo , written on September 8, 2012

From The News Desk

Anyone who cares about fostering a dynamic, competitive tech industry should be rooting for Nokia. Even if you’re not as gaga for Windows Phone as I am—I think it’s the best-designed mobile OS on the market—you’ve got to concede that the Finnish phonemaker has the capacity to be a genuine force for innovation in phone and tablet hardware.

Indeed, Nokia may be the only company capable of playing at Apple’s level. Who else is there? Google may one day do wonders with Motorola, but so far all we’ve seen is more bizarre product names. (The Motorola Droid RAZR Maxx HD: The extra X is for Xwasted opportunity.)

Samsung, meanwhile, is only as innovative as the spec sheet allows—its m.o. is to stuff enough top-end components into generic-looking hardware to win the numbers war, but otherwise its devices are uninspired. Don’t bother writing in with your fulsome praise for Samsung phones; I think the Galaxy SIII is just as good as any phone on the market. But I’m looking for mobile makers that aim for the stars, giving us brilliant innovations—like the Retina display—before others in their class. Samsung isn’t the kind of company that does that sort of thing. Apple is one such firm. Nokia could be another.

Well, it has to be. A couple months ago I praised CEO Stephen Elop for making a big, bold bet on Windows, but I warned that Nokia looked to be “entering its death spiral” anyway. Its only chance at survival was to keep wowing us, to keep making devices that get people to take a second look at a brand few of us think about anymore. Now, the plain truth is that Nokia could do everything right and still lose. So there’s absolutely no room for error, no chance to misfire. It’s got to hit it out of the park every single time.

And Nokia is not doing that. It’s not even close. This week we saw a company snatch defeat from the jaws of getting on the field. (Forgive me, I don’t know sports.) Nokia unveiled a phone that should have been the toast of the industry. Not only is the Lumia 920 quite handsome—especially if you’re a neon yellow fetishist—but it packs legitimately interesting features: Its camera does seem to take significantly better low-light pictures than competing phones, as The Verge documented. Then there’s wireless charging, a feature that Nokia isn’t the first to offer, but one that could now be ready for prime time.

If Nokia had managed the launch well, the Lumia 920 could have been a phone that worried Samsung, piqued Apple, and inspired hordes of customers around the world to at least take a look before signing up for the new iPhone. But none of that happened, because Nokia made a hash of the whole affair.

I’m not just referring to its marketing department’s mind-bogglingly stupid decision to fake a video documenting the Lumia’s image-stabilization system. The revelation—again, documented by The Verge—that Nokia was pulling one over its customers was only the most conspicuous error in what seems to have been a disaster from the start.

That’s because, if you look into why the marketing department had to fake its video, what becomes clear is that the video-stabilizing technique that Nokia talked up on stage doesn’t actually exist. After its fakery was revealed, Nokia offered The Verge a chance to test out the 920’s camera against rivals. But the company only showed off low-light shots, prohibiting any testing of the touted image stabilization for video. There’s only one thing to conclude from that: Nokia may have gotten the image-stabilization for video working in its testing, and it may well be ready when the phone launches, but it’s not working well enough yet. And if it’s not working well now, it’s not working.

That gets to the larger problem: The entire phone isn’t ready. On stage, Nokia had nothing specific to say about when the Lumia would go on sale. A day later, perhaps after noticing that providing a launch date for its make-or-break phone could be somewhat important to the future of its entire business, the firm leaked word that it is planning to launch the 920 in November. That’s about a decade from now in mobile time. In particular, it’s more than a month after the new iPhone will go on sale, a month during which Apple could sell 20 million or more devices around the world.

This is inexcusable. This phone should have launched now; I should be able to assess it side by side with the new iPhone, because the only way the Lumia will win is by turning iPhone users around. I suspect that if Nokia were able to speak candidly about the launch timing, they’d blame Microsoft, which set Windows Phone 8's launch date for late October. What’s more, as Ars Technica’s Peter Bright points out, that release date is looking shaky because Microsoft has been delaying the release of its SDK for third-party developers to build apps for the phone. That’s a big deal because programming for Windows Phone 8 is going to be different from doing so on 7, and developers need time to prepare. They’re not going to get it.

So, sure, blame Microsoft. Redmond should have gotten the OS done sooner. It should have had it done in the summer so that manufacturers could have released their devices early in the fall. At the very least, Microsoft could have given Nokia—its primary hardware partner and the only remaining hope for Windows Phone’s success—some kind of dispensation to release phones carrying a not-quite-final version of the OS, allowing for launch alongside the iPhone. In hands-on videos with the Lumia, after all, Windows Phone looks pretty much done, and its “release to manufacturing” date is next week—so it’s not like Microsoft and Nokia couldn’t have done something, given their terrible market positions, to accelerate the launch.

In the end it doesn’t matter which of these firms should shoulder responsibility for the delay. All that matters is that Nokia missed its chance—perhaps its final chance—to make a big impression. Just watch: When the Lumia launches on Nov. 2, it will win glowing reviews. Critics will praise its beauty, its stylish and intuitive interface, its unmatched camera and handy innovations like wireless charging.

And you know what the raves will amount to? Nothing. No one will care, because—once again—the launch will fit into a storyline that has dogged Windows Phone from the beginning: Fantastic stuff, pity it’s so late.

Pity indeed. Two months ago, I was declaring Nokia dead. This week might have been—should have been—a chance for resurrection. Instead it was a royal screw-up, and now Nokia looks even deader than before.

Correction: I edited the post to make clear that the Lumia 920 feature that isn't working yet is image-stabilization for video; the image-stabilization system is also used for low light shots.