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Spillikins #122. Photography Ц The New Mobile Ecosystem

The week was rich for news. I liked the way the Nokia's CEO was boasting of the fact that the first Windows Phone 7 design was created in California. This is excellent news for Nokia's competitors as this will allow them to get more profit in Europe since they have not experienced any perturbations. While Nokia will definitely alienate some of its loyal users by introducing new fancy designs but get some profit in the US. I don't think it's right to rock the boat in a critical moment like this but this need further studies. This is either due to insufficient market research or this is a deliberate campaign of losing the last bunch of loyal to Nokia customers.

Last week we published an article on the new portable Sony console Ц Artem had a chance to try it in London and present his impressions. I think this device is very interesting and Sony has done very well. I recommend you read that article Ц it will tell you what the new console is capable of.

Three Gaming Hours with Sony NGP

Contents:

  1. The MPix Race Ц The History Repeats Itself
  2. Microsoft Gathers Technologies for Mobile Devices
  3. Windows 8 for Tablets
  4. Leaks from Motorola: Tablet, Watch and Phone
  5. Prospects of Accessible Apple Nano

The MPix Race Ц The History Repeats Itself

It is unfathomable how some issues keep coming up no matter what and you have to tell people same obvious truths. The Spillikins є25 of July 2009 were entitled "The MPix Race is Over" /articles/2009/birulki-25.shtml Back then it was already clear that the manufacturers will cease growing the matrix sizes and choose a different way of development and it happened so. Around that time I have also released a podcast dedicated to the MPix race Ц it is funny to listen to it today Ц most of what I have predicted back then turned out to be true in the long run.

Let's say this issue is a revision of what has been happening for the past two years. Firstly, today cell phones usually use 5 or 8MPix cameras. The direction of the development has shifted from bigger matrices to bettering of the existing photo solutions. For example, there are now reverse backlit cameras that should do better in low light conditions. Secondly, the accent of development has now been shifted to video recording and HD quality is now available: at first it was 720p today 1020p quality is also available. This area gives plenty of play for innovation like stereo sound recording and the second mics in phones appeared specifically for this purpose (in the Nokia N series). Later this practice was abandoned only to be reborn as noise cancelling technologies. The application of the latter in video recording is a new ground for experimenting. It is fascinating to watch the market develop.

However, there have not been any breakthroughs and Nokia N8 was just an attempt to catch up with the competition like PIXON12 and other models. The excellent camera sensor of N8 was not backed by proper image processing algorithms and the vast potential of N8 remains unrealized. The reason is simple Ц development of image processing techniques costs humongous sums and it is not profitable for most companies because a regular user is not ready to pay more but would rather have a mediocre photo quality Ц there are very few photo connoisseurs. That is why even manufactures of regular cameras often pay little attention to this issue. Naturally, the cell phone manufacturers see the quality of photos as a secondary or even a tertiary objective. Unfortunately, the MPix number is still a synonym for quality in the eyes of regular users and it is plain wrong.

For the companies that have a production of cameras like Samsung or LG the adaptation of image processing is not that easy Ц the devices are way too different and have dramatically different optics. That is why in PIXON12 we find a lot of service features and little improvement in terms of image quality: service features (smile recognition, filters, settings etc.) are easily portable to another device while image processing depends on the size of the matrix and the optics. The cell phone optics require a separate R&D which is too expensive for most companies with little prospects of such projects being profitable. It is a pure matter of investment and profitability.

Look at the pictures made on a regular Android phone (LG Optimus Black) Ц we now get a medium photo quality:

This is probably the reason why the cell phone camera market is developing like a Pushme-pullyu. When a new technology is introduced that proves to increase the image quality a bit it is immediately adopted by all the manufacturers. Bit manufacturers still cannot make a quality breakthrough and all mobile phone cameras will offer very similar picture quality. And the difference between the quality will depend only on the cost of the camera module (cheap, average, expensive) but this will be up to the manufacturer and is by no means a matter of technology.

Last week I have released interface snapshots of the 12MPix camera for Windows Phone 7 of an HTC prototype. You might remember the rumors about HTC preparing a photo flagship Ц some said it would be a 16MPix module. Below you will find the pictures of the camera interface of this phone that some have incorrectly called Mazaa which has nothing to do with this phone.

I bet you are impressed the with the ISO value of 1600, HDR, RAW format and other stuff. you will be disappointed to learn that this prototype will never be produced Ц this another experiment that will never be applied in real life. Why? Because the MPix race is over.

The HTC example illustrates perfectly what is going on with the cameras in mobile phones. Historically the company never had a department specializing on cameras. In times of Windows Mobile this was not a big issue because all cameras on that platform were cheap and rather poor but this was not an issue for WM users. Since Android HTC has been paying much more attention to cameras but they were far behind the competition and cameras have been and still are a weak point of HTC phones. That is why the company has made camera R&D number two priority. It has become a tradition to criticize HTC for camera quality and the company wants to change this.

Compare the picture quality of HTC Sensation with Sony Ericsson Arc, Samsung Galaxy SII and Apple iPhone 4.

HTC Sensation Sony Ericsson XPERIA Arc Samsung Galaxy S2

Apparently Sensation does worse than the competitors but for the first time an HTC phone is not dramatically worse. If you add LG Optimus 2x it would be this phone that would become the outsider in quality.

The HTC camera quality improvement is very noticeable as compared to the previous phones of the company. HTC is not trying to make a revolution Ц they simply following the same path other companies have gone: better processing and better matrices. This is a steady process and in the second half of 2011 we will see a lot of phones with a significantly better image quality which will still not be overwhelming. Currently manufacturers are adopting better camera modules and tweaking the software and processing. This is the way all phone cameras develop.

What is going to be next? We can see the future on the screenshots of the 12MPix camera interface of an HTC prototype. The company as well as all the other market players is starting to develop serious image processing software: RAW, new shooting modes etc. This is the next milestone of the competition and all the companies will be a part of it and some will be more active than the others.

If you were considering buying this 12MPix HTC phone I can assure you that it will not be available in the near future. Manufacturers do not hurry to introduce such solutions and the 12MPix cameras are not significantly better than the existing 8MPix ones. There a few manufacturers in the world that produce 12MPix modules offering better quality but they are all located in Japan. The earthquake did damage to production in Japan and before the quake such cameras were expected to be introduced to phones by late 2011 today manufacturers are considering early 2012. This concerns all manufacturers including Nokia which have all the chances to become the first to use a 12MPix camera in a Windows Phone 7 smartphone Ц the company still possesses some reserves of these modules meant for N8. Such a phone won't make a lot of profit but will give a reason to make a lot of marketing hype.

This is where we need to stop and revise what we know Ц so far I have not been taking into account the company that has quietly made a revolution and introduced a new way of working with cameras that other manufacturers have missed and will have to catch up. I am talking about Apple. Some will say that cameras used in Apple products are mediocre and worse than even HTC cameras and this is true to some extent.

But the situation changed starting from Apple iPhone 3G. the cameras have received better hardware and Apple iPhone 4 now offers quality a bit better than average. But the hardware is only a half of success the other being the incredible number of image editing software that allow you to add an artistic touch to your pictures. I have a dozen of such applications in my iPhone Ц I can add certain effects to pictures and make them look better from my point of view. Some apps cam work only with readymade pictures while some of them are capable of working on the fly. One of the most popular apps is instagr.am - it offers a lot of settings and nice filters.

Source: www.joesiewert.com

Source: www.fanpop.com

I also use Hipstamatic Ц you can select camera types and even film type (also some kind of effects). There are a lot of easy to understand settings. It is a friendly app that not only edits your pictures but helps you reveal an artist inside of you without a need to study the art of photography. Below you will find screenshots of this and some other apps Ц try and experiment with your own pictures.

This app as well as similar ones is more than just an editing tool. It is a means of self-expression. And I am quite sure that this will be the main direction of development in the near future. Besides the camera a manufacturer must provide adequate means of image processing Ц this is a must and it has been so for a long time. However, today there is also a third aspect to this equation Ц a means of artistic interpretation of pictures, a means of mass culture with friendly and easy to use tools, and the social component that photography in the past lacked. Services like instagr.am or apps like Hipstamatic will complete the photographic experience of users in mobile devices. We are about to enter the new huge market that is about to create new opportunities of camera work in phones. One of the things this market will offer will be lomography which from a rational point of view should be dead a long time ago. Who can possibly be interested in such bizarre pictures? But this is an artistic interpretation of life, a filter of reality. Today hundreds of such filters are available for mobile phones. Take a look at a copule of such pictures (from www.lomography.ru).

Cell phone manufacturers now often use the word "ecosystem". And mobile phone cameras' ecosystem is being born today and it includes not only the camera hardware and the image processing techniques but also artistic editing and social sharing of results. Photography has become another way of socializing and self-expression. Anyone can be an artist Ц it is really easy today. Never in history has photography been so easily available and easy. This proves that the MPix race is over Ц the artistic touch is now more important.

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Microsoft Gathers Technologies for Mobile Devices

Key news of the week was my Tweeter message that Microsoft decided how much it can pay for a share of Nokia. It is around $19 billion, but neither company will say so publicly. At the moment we can view this piece of news only as gossip, but as far as my sources turned out to be correct on developments associated with Nokia and Microsoft in the past I think the information is quite probable. It is impossible to predict the outcome of the current negotiations, because too many factors can still influence the deal. For the first time in my life the management of Nokia reacted to the news immediately. The CEO of Nokia Stephen Elop labeled this news as groundless. It sounds weird as Nokia usually do not comment gossip, especially groundless ones. The company is clearly worried, because any public disclosure can influence the final price of the deal. I think at the moment Nokia is trying to get as much as it can. As a former Microsoft employee Stephen Elop would like his former company to get a more lucrative deal. He already killed Maemo, Symbian and derailed any chances of Nokia creating rival products in the coming years. Windows Phone 7 was chosen by Elop as a future OS for Nokia, but at the moment it cannot compete with iOS or Android. The stakes were made on a dark horse and now we have to wait and see. There are more and more questions to Stephen Elop. One of former top managers of Nokia explained the strange actions of Elop and even called him bad names. Feel free to read one of the articles.

Let's look at the story from another angle and analyze the behavior of Microsoft in the mobile world. We have already discussed the purchase of Skype. By snapping up this VoIP client Microsoft highlights its serious intentions in the area.

In January of 2011 the company already provided a sneak preview of its ambitions in the segment. It announced plans to release Windows 8 for ARM and the company has hopes for this project. The strategy of Nvidia is based on the bet that Microsoft will follow this path. Entering the market of ARM processors Nvidia mentioned it in detail. Let me remind you of our related article:

CES 2011. Alliance of Nvidia and Microsoft. Computer processors under Nvidia brand

To cut a long story short Ц Nvidia and Microsoft created an alliance against Intel and are trying to define future developments of the mobile devices Ц phones, tablets, navigation tools and so on. If in January our readers questioned the seriousness of these intentions now I can add more facts.

In the document provided by Nvidia to SEC it is said that the company has an agreement with Microsoft for the priority right of the latter to purchase 30% of its shares or more if someone else decides to enter the fray. In current prices this deal will cost $3.4 billion. Nvidia would never do it for fun, so it is part of a bigger picture of cooperation with Microsoft. Surely ARM processors will be used in phones and tablets alike. It is an atypical situation for Microsoft when they decide to participate in the production of components independently, in this case processors. For many people Microsoft releases software only. Even Eric Schmidt from Google mentioned at the D9 conference that he sees only three dominant companies - Google, Facebook and Apple. He did not take Microsoft into account, because to his mind it failed to offer a working ecosystem. Surprisingly, but the deal with Nvidia shows that Microsoft was late to the market of tablets and lost its mobile phones share, but is trying hard to return with a bang. This scenario makes everything possible. The company has more than $30 billion for acquisitions and it is becoming more active.

Ditching close cooperation with Intel Microsoft complements ARM architecture with its software portfolio, influences parts manufacturers and may eventually create a department for mobile devices based on some section of Nokia. It is a serious game, which takes place once in a decade. A giant of a corporation is trying to decide its position in the world and is developing. In future we will see even more vestiges of such growth. Microsoft is trying to create new markets, because the old paradigm does not work anymore.

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Windows 8 for Tablets

Have you ever tried tablets on Windows 7? I can only sympathize with you. It is not fit to handle touchscreens and cannot offer appropriate ergonomics. Apart from a niche of diehard Microsoft fans capable of standing any interface, slow startup times and other deficiencies not many people volunteered to use this latest technology from the Microsoft. The sales of Windows 7 tablets were almost nonexistent.

The company understands that and in Windows 8 all possible things were made to solve the issue. First of all tablets will get a standard Windows 8, but the desktop will resemble the one in mobile phones of the company. In other words Tiles will be used. Control was optimized for fingers operation. Watch this video clearly highlighting many interface features.

Minimum screen resolution for Windows 8 tablets stands at 1024х768, but the company recommends 1366х768. In terms of hardware you can find there both x86 processors and ARM. Among innovations we can mention the work with apps, switch between them (touch the screen and move from left to write as shown in the video). You can scale up and down windows on the go and work in several windows at a time. This feature made me smile, because it is redundant on mobile devices. Tablets are used for single actions at a time, as it is not a PC, where you can place several open windows as long as you have a large display. To my mind, Microsoft lacks designers for mobile UI. So far all their attempts to offer interesting solutions for phones or tablets were in vain.

Among other features it is worth mentioning Internet Explorer 10 adapted for fingers control and a keypad, which can be divided to appear on both sides of the screen enabling entering texts with both thumbs holding the gadget in the air.

It is the first showing of Windows 8, but at the moment we cannot say it can compete with iOS, as it does not look impressive. If you want to have a look at a typical Windows 7 product disguised as a tablet watch this video.

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Leaks from Motorola: Tablet, Watch and Phone

The chaos inside Motorola becomes more intense. The company introduced its new website, which suddenly disclosed the information about several unannounced products. These pages were quickly retreated, but what goes online stays there. Now we know that Motorola is planning to release the continuation of Xoom, which looks similarly, but we have no specifications to discuss. It should appear in the second part of the year. More interesting news is the apparent decision to go back to thin solutions. The ghost of RAZR is still present in Motorola and the company wants to come up with something extraordinary again. You cannot go back in time and thin products cannot surprise anybody now. For example, Sony Ericsson is playing on the same field too. Nice looking Motorola Zaha is unlikely to enjoy wide popularity. There will be no craze similar to that of RAZR. The times are changing and the manufacturer lost much ground during the years.

Source: pocketnow.com/

The third device for today is a watch with the inbuilt phone. Other companies did the same, but such products are mere exotic solutions. Motorola labels its gadget Tracy XL. It looks nice, but the characteristics still remain an unknown quantity.

Source: pocketnow.com/

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Prospects of Accessible Apple Nano

Nokia is factually leaving the market of smartphones and its future with Windows Phone 7 is not clear yet, but they still have 60 million of current users. This juicy slice of the market can be taken by several companies Ц Samsung, LG and others. Such opportunities arise once in a lifetime when a leader sheds its dominant position without much fight. It is a unique chance for Apple to attract millions of new users, who never purchased its products due to a variety of reasons. The main limitation for Apple is the presence of one model only in the shape of iPhone 4, which is expensive and already enjoys outstanding sales in its niche. iPhone 3Gs 8 GB can serve as a cheaper alternative, but it is outdated now and many people prefer to buy something else instead. In fact in the mid price segment you cannot find any Apple offering. The size of this market share is huge and exceeds the current segment of Apple several times. Getting a foothold in the segment may drag down the sales of flagship models, but the market share and revenues of Apple will be boosted dramatically. Apple will be literally on top of the world.

I have mentioned this on Mobile-Review.com and one of counterarguments was that Apple never followed this pattern before. Our readers believe that there is no need for the company to compromise its performance in the high end of the market. To my mind we can make a comparison with iPod players when Apple moved down from the very top in terms of prices, which surprised the audience every time. First appeared Nano to be followed by Shuffle. All these steps only enforced the position of the company. We have a similar situation here, so it will not be an uncharted territory for Apple by any means.

Another example is Macbook Pro and Macbook Air. Pricing for these models is rather adequate and allows competing with rivals in this respect, which was never typical of Apple. The company is ready to offer products with value for money. In other words we have all possibilities to see Apple iPhone Nano or another inexpensive product. This role is played by iPod Touch at the moment. It has all phone features, though it is not a phone. The next incarnation of the idea will be definitely a phone, as players sales are going down and Apple is doing better only due to strong brand loyalty among its customers.

What can be changed in such a phone? Apple has been making prototypes of accessible models since 2008. All of them represented simplified versions of flagship solutions. They had smaller screens or had no screen at all. These experiments never came to the production stage, because the sales of Apple iPhone were going through the roof together with revenues and market share. In 2011 the growth slowed down and will turn into stagnation soon (I mean the market share). To grow even further Apple must offer a pair to the flagship solution. I think Apple could do well with the current 3.5" screen to ensure similar user experience and OS compatibility. Retina Display can be replaced by ordinary screens like in iPhone 3Gs. Future top products could have bigger screens of around 4" and up. This way we will get visually different models. You can also limit inbuilt memory by 16 GB. A camera should have different characteristics from those of a flagship model. Body materials can be simpler (e.g. ordinary plastic). Price difference could be explained easily. The "cheaper" model should cost around 60-65% of the price of a top of the range handset. If you decrease the price by 50% the market share will skyrocket. I will be surprised if Apple fails to use the situation and does not create such a product. It is logical and could provide a unique opportunity for Apple.

P.S. In June we will treat you to even more reviews than ever, so get ready for a hot season.

Do you want to talk about this? Please, go to our Forum and let your opinion to be known to the author and everybody else.

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Related links

Spillikins #119. Skype is Going on Sale Ц Last Days of Freedom

Spillikins #120. The Future of Supermarket Shopping

Spillikins #121. Sweet Mango for Windows Phone 7

Eldar Murtazin (eldar@mobile-review.com)
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Translated by Maxim Antonenko (maxantonenko@ukr.net), Robert Mugattarov (mugattarov@gmail.com)

Published — 09 June 2011

Have something to add?! Write us... eldar@mobile-review.com

 

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