After months of speculation they're finally here: Nokia's first Windows Phone smartphones will go on sale on the 16th of November. The Lumia 800 isn't just a smartphone, though. It's the first shot in a new technology battle. Fed up with Apple and Android getting all the attention, Nokia and Microsoft want to be the Phone Kings once again.
Mobile phones have changed dramatically in a very short space of time. Smartphones used to mean Windows Mobile devices, or possibly Blackberries; when Google initially designed its Android system, it looked awfully like a combination of Windows Mobile and the Blackberry OS. Then Apple came along. Its 2007 iPhone reinvented the smartphone, and most of today's devices have clearly been influenced by Apple's wonder gadget.
Microsoft didn't see it coming, but it soon realised that Windows Mobile's time was up. It dumped the ageing operating system and got its best people to design a new one. The result, Windows Phone, was brilliant, and its current version - 7.5, aka "Mango" - is a joy to use, with a drop-dead-gorgeous interface called "Metro" and great integration with entertainment services, social networks and even Xbox Live. Where other mobile OSes are essentially Apple-lite, Windows Phone thinks different.
There were just two problems. One, there weren't any Windows Phone devices with the all-important wow factor. And two, the firms who made Windows Phone devices also made Android ones, and they spent their marketing money on the latter. The Microsoft/Nokia partnership will change that by making must-have kit and making sure everybody knows about it.
So is the Lumia 800 any good? Early reviews say yes. The 3.7-inch screen is gently curved and its OLED display looks the business, delivering crisp colours and deep blacks even in bright sunlight, while the 8-megapixel camera, speedy processor and reasonable storage mean the Lumia's competitive with its rivals. Customers also get 25GB of free online storage courtesy of Microsoft's SkyDrive, Nokia Drive sat-nav software, the Nokia Music streaming audio service and, for sports fans, an ESPN application. The camera's the real selling point here, though: the combination of dual-LED flash and Carl Zeiss optics means you can leave your point and shoot camera at home.
It's good, then, but is it good enough? While Nokia and Microsoft tinkered away in their labs, Apple, Android and Blackberries were taking over the world. Android now has 50% of the UK smartphone market, with the majority of the remainder shared between Apple (18.5%) and RIM's BlackBerry (22.5%). If this were a race, Apple, Android and RIM would be nearing the finishing line while Microsoft and Nokia were still putting their running shoes on.
This isn't a sprint, though. It's a marathon. Microsoft is chucking enormous amounts of cash into the Nokia deal and associated marketing, and the Lumia 800 is just the first of many Windows Phone devices from the company. A more affordable Lumia is already on the horizon - the Lumia 710, which will arrive in early 2012 - and there will be stacks more over the coming year.
There will be new software too. Windows Phone's next version, Apollo, is expected to arrive when Windows 8 does - and Windows 8's new look, which is directly inspired by Windows Phone, will introduce millions to the joys of the Metro interface. That in turn could help drive sales of Windows Phones.
Rivals haven't stopped moving, though. Apple's just shipped iOS 5 and the iPhone 4S, and we'll no doubt see the iPhone 5 next year; Android's latest version, Ice Cream Sandwich, is starting to appear on phones as Android manufacturers become ever more competitive; and Blackberry's now shipping phones with its new Blackberry OS 7. The challenge for Microsoft and Nokia isn't just to match what rivals are doing today, but to anticipate and beat what they'll be doing this time next year, for now though we are happy there is finally another operating system backed with the hardware that really has the credentials to compete with Android and Apple.
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