New super-duper smartphone cameras likely won't help HTC and Nokia, analysts say

HTC to launch M7 smartphone on Tuesday with Nokia's EOS device expected on Feb. 25

HTC and Nokia are separately expected to announce super-high-quality cameras in new smartphones expected to be unveiled the next week.

It remains unclear whether the new cameras alone can lure new customers to either smartphone maker, each of which each faced a difficult 2012 against industry leaders Apple and Samsung.

Put another way, can a truly great camera be enough to lure a customer to a new manufacturer or platform, such as Windows Phone 8? Analysts are skeptical.

HTC will reportedly unveil the Android-based M7 smartphone on Tuesday in New York and London. The camera in the device is expected to combine three 4.3 megapixel sensors to create a single, beautiful image.

In a recent blog post, HTC said it will have a new camera experience this year, following up on its unveiling of the 8-megapixel HTC Droid Incredible in 2010 and a the HTC EVo 3D in 2011 for shooting 3D movies and images.

The blog directly confronts the Symbian-based Nokia 808 PureView smartphone, announced a year ago, that has 41 megapixels. In the blog, HTC noted more megapixels don't necessarily produce better images.

Reports circulating about Nokia's announcement on Feb. 25 at Mobile World Congress say that the manufacturer will use camera sensor technology used in the 808 PureView in a new Lumia Windows Phone 8 device that's code named EOS.

Nokia announced in January that the 808 would be its last Symbian-based phone.

A frequent criticism of the Nokia Lumia 920 and 808 PureView phones is that they are too heavy or bulky. The EOS is made of lighter aluminum and will be sold later in 2013 by AT&T, according to unnamed sources who spoke to The Verge last month.

Even though the new HTC and Nokia smartphones are expected to include great cameras, three analysts said that likely won't be enough to boost sales at the struggling firms. Customers will continue to first weigh the operating systems in the smartphones, and then many other factors, including cost and styling, they said.

"Having a better camera might help users pick a device over some other, but that is questionable," said Carolina Milanesi, an analyst at Gartner. "Just look at Samsung's success despite not having a great camera experience, or on the other hand, Sony's [lesser success] even though it had great cameras in phones all along."

"Good camera technology is certainly a requirement today, but it seems that good enough is enough," Milanesi said.

Jack Gold, an analyst at J. Gold Associates, added, "I don't think a camera alone can swing a buyer. It's frosting on the cake, and not the cake itself. You still have to convince buyers that the OS choice is what they want. The camera has influence, but not overriding the OS choice, in my opinion. A good camera can't save an otherwise me-too or poor quality phone experience."

Based on that argument, putting 808 Pureview camera technology into a Windows Phone 8-based handset would not be as important as convincing buyers that they want the new Microsoft OS in a device.

So far, at least, the Windows Phone OS hasn't caught on, with less than 5% of the global smartphone market, compared to Android's nearly 70% in the fourth 2012 quarter, according to Gartner.

Gold also said that while the number of pixels is surging in smartphone cameras, "what makes a true quality camera is the lens."

Ramon Llamas, an analyst at IDC, said that there's an ongoing "incredible war of specs" for the best camera in a smartphone. "But that's not the end game."

Llamas said that photo and video editing features along with lighting capabilities are also important to a smartphone's overall success.

Last year, Nokia purchased Scalado, which developed an interesting "time warp" photo editing feature used in the new BlackBerry 10 OS that runs the former RIM's Z10 smartphone. With it, users can take a short video of a group of people, then edit the video to find the best frame with all the eyes of the people in the shot open instead of closed.

Scalado's technology and better use of lighting are the kinds of things that increase the value of a smartphone, Llamas argued.

"Polls show that the most used feature on smartphones is the camera, so HTC and Nokia want to show they're not just another smartphone company with a camera stuck in," he said. "How many times have you taken a picture of a person at a concert or a party and comes out like junk?"

Still, smartphone cameras and related lighting and editing features are not going to be more important to customers than the overall OS, Llamas said, agreeing with others. "The OS is the gateway to the entire experience," he said.

Matt Hamblen covers mobile and wireless, smartphones and other handhelds, and wireless networking for Computerworld. Follow Matt on Twitter at @matthamblen, or subscribe to Matt's RSS feed . His e-mail address is mhamblen@computerworld.com.

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Matt Hamblen

Computerworld (US)

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