Author(s): Raghu Gopal
A decade ago the Nokia N95 hit the market. Although its specifications now seem quaint, it was a remarkable smartphone for its day. It had a 2.6-inch display, a 332 MHz processor, 3.5G connectivity, Wi-Fi and GPS. It was perhaps most celebrated for its imaging capabilities: it had a five-megapixel camera with a bulging Carl Zeiss-branded lens.
Last week's news that HMD Global, the Finnish start-up that's taken over the Nokia phone brand, has entered into a partnership with German optics specialist Zeiss left us feeling a bit nostalgic. Zeiss, the highly-regarded maker of camera lenses, will design hardware and software for upcoming Nokia-labelled smartphones.
A decade ago, even a marginally capable camera in a handset was special. These weren't meant to replace point-and-shoot cameras, but added a convenient imaging feature. Today, the camera is considered as one of the more important specifications of any modern smartphone.
Nokia and Zeiss collaborated on many devices over the years. In addition to the N95, other Symbian-based phones were equipped with Zeiss optics including the N93, a phone which was a crossbreed between a camcorder and a clamshell phone. The partnership also delivered the Nokia 808 PureView, a groundbreaking imaging device, and the last ever Symbian phone, which pioneered the use of a 41-megapixel sensor and featured a high-resolution Zeiss f2.4 lens with aspherical glass elements in one group. More recently, Zeiss supplied imaging technology for the Nokia Lumia 1020 phone, powered by the Windows Phone operating system. The handset also featured a 41-megapixel camera.
It's uncertain how much of the market shares our sentiment for a bygone era. This isn't the same Nokia we knew. It does have some of the same talent, but many leading camera experts drifted away to rival companies. For example, several members of Nokia's former PureView team now work at Apple.
HMD Global's three smartphones currently available on the market offer adequate specifications, but they're not exceptional devices. They are mid-tier phones without technology from Zeiss. This means the announcement of the rekindled partnership almost certainly points to HMD Global's aspirations to move up the value chain and deliver higher-tier smartphones.
The big question is whether Zeiss can still help deliver a market-leading camera experience on smartphones given the vast progress rivals have made since "old" Nokia's heyday. Flagship devices from Apple and Samsung now deliver a remarkable camera performance. Other partnerships with camera brands have also emerged, including Huawei's tie-up with Leica and Motorola's collaboration with Hasselblad. Most recently, Sony unveiled the Xperia Premium XZ phone, which features impressive Motion Eye technology. The feature takes camera capabilities to new levels, offering predictive capture and super-slow motion when shooting a video at 960 frames per second. The results are astounding.
Nokia's revived relationship with Zeiss is described as a long-term commitment to technology innovation. The Nokia brand has a track record of producing some stunning camera hardware, so Zeiss will need to deliver something exceptional to meet the benchmarks HMD Global must achieve to meet expectations for the Nokia brand.