Nokia makes beautiful Windows Phones—of this, there is no doubt. But whether or not those phones are different enough to make them interesting to the buying public remains an open question.
Take the brand new Nokia Lumia Icon, which the company announced Wednesday. It is a 5-inch smartphone, exclusive to Verizon, which packs all the top-end specs and design quality that people ostensibly look for in a Windows Phone.
The Lumia Icon features a 20-megapixel camera with the usual Zeiss Optics and Auto Focus that Nokia has long used for its high-end devices like the Lumia 1020, as well as optical image stabilization and oversampling technology for deeper, richer images.
The display on the Lumia Icon is comparable to some of the best Android devices with its 1920 x 1080 resolution at 441 pixels per inch. The Lumia Icon is also packed with 2 GB of RAM and 32 GB of internal memory. All the specs are good enough to compete with any Android phone released in 2013.
The Lumia Icon ships with the latest version of Windows Phone 8 (Upgrade 3) and the Nokia Lumia Black software, which Nokia uses to soup-up the experience of Windows Phone.
Lumia Black Is Nokia's Value Proposition
At this point, you know exactly what you are going to get with a Lumia device: You are going to get the Windows Phone operating system (which has no real aesthetic difference between devices) and all of Nokia’s add-ons included in the Lumia Black package.
Lumia Black is not exactly a “skin” (a differentiated interface or launcher in the way that Android manufacturers make) but rather a set of services that Nokia uses to make its Windows Phones a little more interesting.
Lumia Black provides subtle differences to the Windows Phone experience. It has what's called “Glance Screen," which shows the user if they have missed calls or messages from the lock screen. It has all of Nokia’s whips, chains, whistles and yo-yos for its Camera app including the Storyteller app that allows you to create digital albums of your photos. Lumia Black also includes the Nokia Beamer, a screen-sharing app that allows Nokia users to send their photos to TVs, other smartphones running iOS and Android and other Lumia devices.
If you take a step back, the Nokia Icon appears to be a fairly full device, with regards to features. It has the high-end specs (which may not look so high-end for Android devices by the end of 2014), the full suite of Lumia apps (including Nokia HERE Maps and Nokia MixRadio), the Nokia camera in all of its glory and the latest software offerings in Windows Phone.
The Verizon Factor
The Lumia Icon is a Verizon device, which means it comes with all the peculiarities (including the pre-installed carrier apps) of a Verizon smartphone.
Verizon doesn’t play the same game as the other carriers when it comes to smartphones from certain manufacturers. Instead of being in at the launch of flagship devices, it will hold out and insist on its own hero devices. Sure, Verizon may still have to play ball with the likes of Apple’s iPhone and Samsung’s Galaxy S phones, but other manufacturers are often forced to create Verizon-specific devices. The HTC One didn’t release on Verizon until months after its initial launch. The Nokia Lumia 928 was essentially a Lumia 920, but specific to Verizon and six months after the fact.
Verizon can get away with this strong-arm tactic because it is one of the largest and most powerful carriers in the U.S. It can easily say, “we don’t want your flagship, make us our own,” and most smartphone manufacturers acquiesce.
The problem with the Lumia Icon is that it is essentially an updated version of the excellent Lumia 1020, just with a smaller camera. There is no differentiation in Windows Phone, the Lumia Black features and Nokia apps are basically the same as we have seen in previous Lumia devices.
Nokia has a wide-range of Lumia devices these days. From the budget Lumia 520 to the comically massive Lumia 1520, from the 41 MP camera of the Lumia 1020 to the high-quality tablet of the Lumia 2520, variation hardware designs are not Nokia's problem. Creating a different experience is. At this point, many consumers know whether they like Windows Phone or not. If they do not, or are lukewarm, nothing new that Nokia launches under Windows Phone is going to be appealing.
If you want a powerful, functional Windows Phone with a good camera on Verizon, the Lumia Icon is for you. It is a perfectly fine device. If you have been waiting for a Windows Phone that offers a new, less monotonous experience from all the other Windows Phones you have used, this is not the phone you are looking for.
Lead image by twicepix on Flickr; right image by Nokia