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Nokia Lumia 920: Windows Phone 8 and the software side

Nokia’s new Lumia 920 hardware has already been analysed in detail, but its software played a major role in this week’s joint Microsoft and Nokia announcement. Windows Phone 8 (WP8) is finally taking shape as pre-production devices were being demoed and even made available for limited hands-on sessions. Microsoft has taken a big gamble by betting on new phones like the 920 – no current phone will be able to run WP8 – and from what was shown by the two companies, it may start paying off soon.

Windows Phone 8 is seriously fun

After over a decade of using a variety of different smartphones, one thing that stands out about Windows Phone 8 is that it looks like fun. Maybe it is just Joe Belfiore’s infectious enthusiasm for the product, but even customising the Start screen comes off as being as interesting as many video games. Not having Windows Phone 8 to play with, I followed along with his demo on my Windows 8 laptop, and sure enough was able to quickly put my favourite people tiles on my screen, and customise my news and weather offerings quickly. It almost made me forgive Microsoft for removing Gadgets from the Windows 8 desktop.

Another compelling aspect of Belfiore’s demo was showing the HTML5 site for Pulse running on the Lumia 920. Pulse is one of my favourite Android apps – especially since we didn’t used to have Flipboard on Android – and I wasn’t sure whether it’d make it to WP8. The HTML5 version running on WP8 is essentially every bit as good as a native application, with smooth hardware-assisted scrolling and all the bells and whistles. If other key content-centric applications follow suit, HTML5 can help WP8 overcome the daunting challenge of catching up with the hundreds of thousands of applications available for iOS and Android.

Windows everywhere

Microsoft recapped the features of Windows Phone 8 that it showcased in the initial product launch, including integrations with SkyDrive and the new Microsoft account sync features. The 920 will also feature Nokia’s Music service. Certainly one major attraction for loyal users of Windows on the desktop will be a common login and personal preferences across all their devices, and eventually sharing of applications written for the new cross-platform versions of Microsoft’s .NET libraries.

Photographic software lenses

Windows Phone 8 opens up smartphone cameras to add-ins that allow real-time image effects and customisations, allowing for some exciting new applications. These plug-ins, called lenses, can be shipped with the phone or downloaded later. Ironically, this is exactly the type of outside-the-box thinking I was expecting to come first in Android-powered devices, but wasn’t evident in the launch of the Samsung Galaxy Camera or the Nikon Coolpix S800c.

Microsoft’s Joe Belfiore demonstrated a Photosynth lens for creating immersive 360-degree scenes easily. Other lenses shown as part of the Windows Phone 8 demo included Blink, for automatically picking out the best of a series of photos of a person’s face, and a Bing Vision lens, with functionality similar to Google Goggles. Nokia is bringing some of its own magic to the image processing party, with a lens called SmartShoot that uses ghost removal from multiple images to delete those pesky tourists from snaps of popular scenes.

These lenses, combined with Nokia’s exciting new “floating lens” image stabilisation system, should make the Lumia 920 a uniquely capable smartphone. Of course, the faked floating lens advert has caused quite a stir – Nokia actually used a proper video camera and not a Lumia 920 to shoot the footage for the ad. However, the Finnish company has apologised profusely for this – after being found out – saying the advert was only intended to demonstrate the capabilities of the phone. Nokia then posted a video showing off image stabilisation (above) which was definitely taken using a Lumia 920.

Location, location, location

Nokia continues to leverage its purchase of Navteq into a leadership position for location-based services on smartphones. The Lumia 920 features integrated, offline-capable versions of Nokia Maps, Nokia Drive, and Nokia Transport that would usually be the reserve of a dedicated GPS device. Users of those tools are only a click away from free voice-guided navigation. In a nod to the showcase feature of Google Now, the Nokia software will work out when you need to leave for your commute based on current traffic conditions.

Building on that foundation, Nokia City Lens is a slick looking version of local augmented reality. Sweeping your phone across the scene in front of you highlights local businesses and points of interest. Having used a number of applications which have claimed similar features, the devil will be in the details – literally how much detail is really available in the City Lens view.

If all City Lens provides is what you can already see with your eyes – like restaurant signs and obvious landmarks – it’ll fade away like most of the previous attempts to make staring at the world through your smartphone seem useful or cool. Hopefully it’ll go beyond the obvious and provide useful and personalised information about the local area.

Taken as a whole, Nokia and Microsoft have clearly tried to combine the best of the iPhone’s integrated user experience and Android’s power and customisation capability into a single offering – with a few slick twists of their own. If the experience on production versions of the Nokia 920 lives up to what the two companies have showcased, they may just have achieved this.