Ever heard of a paper launch? Well, today you witnessed one in full flight. Nokia and Microsoft, two former mobile giants seeking to rekindle smartphone buyers' passions, came out with the Lumia 920 and Lumia 820 Windows Phone 8 devices. They are beautiful to look at, sumptuous to touch ... and entirely unavailable to buy. Their entire release schedule, such as it is, is obfuscated into the mists of "the fourth quarter of this year." In other words, you'll be able to buy a Lumia Windows Phone 8 handset before the end of 2012, but exactly when, for how much, and with which carrier, nobody outside Espoo yet knows.
Today needed to be about delivery instead of more promissory notes
Nokia has been talking about the future for so long that today should have been about the present. Today needed to be about delivery instead of more promissory notes. Instead Nokia did what it usually does: excite fans with an array of sweet new features, mostly on the hardware side, but fail them by offering no firm release details. One of CEO Stephen Elop's tentpole goals when he took charge of the company was to cut the time between product announcement and retail release. The dictum I've heard repeated at today's event is instead that Nokia will have more to say over the coming weeks.
That's not good enough.
Google has just wrapped up a launch event with Motorola for new Android handsets, some of which are available for immediate pre-order. Apple's blockbuster iPhone 5 launch is scheduled for a week from now, and, if that company's history is any indication, will be followed by retail availability within the following 14 days. While Nokia continues to build equal measures of anticipation and frustration among its fans, its direct competitors are taking rapid action to bring their products to market first.
Nokia's inability to commit to a release date today is not due to an issue with its hardware. Hardware has never been Nokia's problem. The Lumia 920 is another marvel of industrial design, and its camera's optical image stabilization and f/2.0 aperture even seem good enough to justify the use of the PureView brand. The software remains this company's Achilles heel. Nokia tells me the Lumia 920 and 820 are ready to go in terms of design, but it's the integration of hardware and software that is still being worked on.
I heard that same word, integration, two years ago when asking Nokia why it took so long for the once-impressive N8 to make it to market. By the time that handset was available to buy, the Android-powered HTC EVO 4G had stolen its claim as being the first smartphone to offer 720p video recording. The same fate can befall Nokia's new Windows Phone 8 phones if nimbler companies make it to market with that all-new hypersensitive Synaptics touchscreen or dedicated wireless charging stations.
Is Nokia waiting on Windows Phone 8 to reach maturity?
Switching to Microsoft's Windows Phone OS was meant to help Nokia avoid having to delay market-ready products while software kinks are being worked out, but the evidence is mounting to suggest that Nokia's old issues continue plaguing it on the new platform. It's hard to pinpoint whose fault exactly this is: is it a problem with Nokia's software engineers or is the Finnish company stuck waiting on Windows Phone 8 to reach maturity? Whatever the case, today's smartphone launch was mostly a hands-off affair, and when we were allowed to get to grips with the new Lumias, it was under the strict condition that we didn't stray too far away from the homescreen.
The Lumia 920 and 820 introduced today make Nokia look like a technology innovator hitting its stride once again. But until they arrive on store shelves, these glitzy events will all be for naught. It's time for Nokia to stop selling us dreams and start shipping the real thing. We'll probably never know whether Nokia is the victim of Microsoft's Windows Phone 8 roadmap or its own sluggishness, but that's not important. The company ultimately responsible to Nokia fans, investors, and phone owners, is Nokia itself.