@ MWC: Nokia takes two steps forward, one step back

BARCELONA — What a difference a year makes. Maybe.

Nokia was in dire straights this time last year. Having just announced a nearly universal reset of its business and betting its future on Microsoft’s Windows Phone platform, the company’s future was bleak but at least it had a new plan and operating system that could turn back the tide.

Today, Nokia continues to talk about its strategy and deep partnership with Microsoft, but only one of the two devices introduced here at Mobile World Congress are running on Microsoft’s OS. The other device is the 808 PureView, which features a hard-to-fathom 41-megapixel sensor, Carl Zeiss optics and Nokia’s pixel over-sampling technology. The 808 PureView runs on the latest version of Symbian, a software with a future so narrow that Nokia dumped it (and 3,000 related employees) on Accenture last April.

Nokia was an early leader in mobile imaging technology, regularly developing the best cameraphones in the market. The company wants to revive its illustrious tradition in mobile photography and the 808 PureView will help in that regard, but not enough. Ultimately, consumers will be the ones who determine whether Nokia’s marketing department overreached with the 41-megapixel claim. After all, 41 megapixels is more than five times the number of pixels captured by today’s leading smartphone cameras. Critics are right to wonder how a 41-megapixel camera can be jammed into a little device that also happens to make calls and browse the Internet.

The camera technology has been in development for five years, and it will capture news headlines for its impressive results, but don’t expect the 808 PureView to be sold at any significant scale. People buy smartphones for a lot of reasons, but few of them will overlook the fact that they’ll have to put up with Symbian to achieve 41 megapixels of photographic bliss.

The 808 PureView is filler at best. But if Nokia can take the same imaging technology and pack it into a device running Windows Phone, it will have a point of differentiation that could stand up against its smartphone competitors for years to come. That must be plan, but there also must be a reason why Nokia couldn’t introduce this leap in technology on a Windows Phone device.

Only time will tell, but Nokia doesn’t have much time if it hopes to make a dent in Apple or Google’s commanding smartphone market shares.