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Nokia, what happened to cyan?

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Lumia 900 AT&T
Lumia 900 AT&T

Apple v. Samsung aside, it's extraordinarily difficult to visually differentiate a new full-screen smartphone from the dozens of others on the market in a meaningful way that people will notice. When a customer walks into a carrier's store, they effectively see row of anonymous black slabs and, more than likely, an iPhone kiosk — it's not practical to expect them to be able to distinguish a Samsung from an LG from an HTC when they're standing more than a couple feet away (many of us could, but we don't represent the broad base that OEMs need to target to achieve commercial success). That's a big problem for brand recognition.

And that's a big reason why Nokia's Windows Phones have been intriguing, if not moneymaking: the wrapped polycarbonate shell, combined with a unique range of colors, is hard to ignore. A cyan Lumia 800 or 900 is going to grab the eye in a store in a way that a black phone never can, simply because it's so different. Clearly, loud colors aren't enough to seal the deal at the register, but they're a start; they make a powerful first impression. The jury's still out on whether Windows Phone 8 is good enough to carry the rest of the message — that's going to ultimately depend on an array of factors like Windows 8 uptake, growth of the Windows Phone app ecosystem, and so on — but a cyan phone screams "look at me." It gets your foot in the door.

Cyan was quickly becoming a Nokia trademark

That's why I was so surprised to see that Nokia has abandoned cyan for the launch of its new flagship product, the Lumia 920. It's not that Nokia has stopped offering bright colors altogether — the 920 will be available in yellow and an eye-searing bright red — but cyan had come to mean something more: it was well on its way to becoming indelibly intertwined with the Elop-era Nokia. The N9, Lumia 610, 800, and 900 are all offered in cyan, along with a number of key accessories like headphones, Bluetooth earbuds, and battery covers for the Lumia 710. The company had effectively begun building a cyan "ecosystem." And Nokia itself is a very "blue" company; just visit or have a look at our photos from today's live blog. In the mobile space, cyan belongs to Nokia. It carries more brand recognition than "Lumia" and "PureView" combined.

That's not to say that cyan has left Nokia's stable entirely. The Lumia 820 — also announced today — can be equipped with an interchangeable cyan backplate, and the JBL Power Up speaker comes in cyan, too (which was awkwardly demonstrated on stage with a very clashing yellow 920). But leaving the flagship model out of the ecosystem is, to me, a pretty powerful statement. A statement of what, though, I'm not exactly sure: is Espoo trying to distance itself from a color that's so strongly associated with an especially tough period in the company's history? Will a cyan 920 be announced later as a carrier exclusive? Was the notion of adding red and yellow to the palette too enticing, and it didn't want to gum up the production line (bear in mind that the 920 is a unibody phone that doesn't have interchangeable plates like the 820) with yet another color? Was Stephen Elop just getting tired of looking at bright blue?

Clearly, cyan wasn't — and isn't — the magic bullet that pushes Nokia back into profitability. But for a company seeking every win it can get, it seems only logical that it would want to embrace every opportunity for positive brand recognition that it can. A Nokia spokesperson told us that we "might" see a cyan version of the 920 in the future without going into specifics; for what it's worth, we've seen several new Lumia 900 colors introduced over that phone's lifecycle, so here's hoping.

Update: It's back.