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Nokia's new smartphone not likely to overcome disastrous decisions

| Sunday, Nov. 6, 2011

Nokia's new Windows smartphones are almost here. But I don't think they'll be enough to revive the struggling company.

As you may recall, Nokia, the world's biggest phone maker, announced in February it was abandoning Symbian, after failing to adequately update the smartphone software and after seeing its market share decline. In Symbian's place, the company said it would embrace Microsoft's fledgling Windows Phone 7 software.

It was a bet-the-company decision and one that has proven disastrous so far. As sales of Symbian devices dried up, Nokia's revenue dropped, its bottom line went from black to red and its market share plummeted. As a result, the company has been forced to lay off thousands of workers.

Eight months after announcing the move, Nokia is showing off its first Windows Phone 7 devices, which it hopes will mark the beginning of a turnaround.

The two phones, the Lumia 800 and the Lumia 710, hit store shelves starting next month in certain European and Asian markets. They may also come to the United States, but Nokia representatives won't confirm that, saying only that the company will begin offering Windows Phone 7 gadgets — not necessarily these — here early next year.

I got to play with the new Lumia devices last week in a 30-minute session at Nokia's Sunnyvale, Calif., office. I need to spend more time with them to give a more comprehensive review, but my initial impression was lukewarm. The Lumia 800 in particular is a nice phone, but I wouldn't trade an iPhone or a good Android phone for it.

The Lumia 800 is clearly the company's high-end device, the one that Nokia is likely to position as a competitor to the iPhone and high-end Android smartphones.

The Lumia 800 has a thin, sleek, minimalist case that's reminiscent of the iPod mini or early versions of the iPod nano. It's got an 8-megapixel camera and a bright OLED display that's slightly larger than the screen in the iPhone. It has 16 gigabytes of storage — the same as the low-end iPhone 4S.

Despite having a single-core processor — the iPhone and many new Android devices have dual-core ones — the Lumia didn't seem to be lacking any umph. I was able to launch applications and switch between them quickly, with no noticeable lag. And its camera shot pictures quickly, much like the new iPhone 4S.

The Lumia 710 is less impressive and is clearly going to be marketed as an entry-level smartphone. With its rounded, white plastic case, it looks a bit like HTC's myTouch 3G. Although it has the same processor as the Lumia 800, it has a lower-resolution camera, half as much storage and an LCD display that seemed dull by comparison.

One noticeable omission on both phones: Neither includes a front-facing camera, so you can't use them to make video calls.

But that's a relatively minor problem. Nokia has long built good, or at least adequate, hardware, and the Lumias are no different in that regard. Nokia's biggest problem has not been its phones' designs or their technical specifications but the operating system they ran on. Compared to Apple's iOS and Google's Android, Symbian looked and felt old, slow and way too complex.

Windows Phone 7 is a big improvement in that regard. It's much easier to use. It looks and feels contemporary. And it's clearly distinct from iOS and Android.

Instead of apps, Windows Phone 7 is focused on "smart tiles" that convey information at a glance without having to launch a full application, and hubs, where you can access information pulled from a number of distinct sources. The People hub, for example, allows you to see the list of your contacts and their latest posts on Twitter or Facebook.

The problem for Nokia is that while Windows Phone 7 improves on Symbian, it doesn't measure up well compared with iOS or Android.

Microsoft has struggled to keep up with Apple and Android when it comes to features. The company added copy-and-paste and multitasking to Windows Phone 7 long after such features were standard on the iPhone and Android devices. And despite owning Skype, Microsoft has yet to build a video calling application into Windows Phone 7, something that Apple added to the iPhone last year.

Windows Phone 7 lags in apps. The number of applications available for such devices is in the tens of thousands; for Android or iOS, your choices number in the hundreds of thousands. While you're likely to find many of the most popular apps on Windows Phone 7, the more limited selection means that an up-and-coming or obscure app you've heard about may not be available.

Additional Information:

Doing Windows

The mobile-phone giant Nokia has unveiled its first phones running Windows Phone 7:

Models : Lumia 800 and Lumia 710

Likes : The Lumia 800 has a sleek, thin body and bright display. Windows Phone 7 is a big improvement on Symbian, Nokia's older operating system.

Dislikes : Neither has a 'killer app' that sets it apart. Windows Phone 7 has fewer apps and features than Apple's iOS and Google's Android.

Availability : The Lumia 800 is available now in certain European countries; both phones will be available in other European and Asian markets by the end of the year. It's unclear if they will be offered to U.S. customers.

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