Better imaging: the answer to Nokia’s flagging smartphone business?


posted Thursday, June 14, 2012 at 11:56 PM EDT

Nokia's 808 PureView smartphone has a whopping 41 megapixel image sensor. Photo provided by Nokia.Times are hard for mobile phone giant Nokia. After years at the top, the company recently lost its lead in the mobile phone market to rival Samsung. Once dominant in the smartphone space, lately it has shown increasing weakness while rivals have soared. At Samsung, smartphones are now said to comprise nearly half of its global sales, versus just 16 percent for Nokia. Acknowledging its problems last year, Nokia has abandoned its lengthy use of the Symbian operating system in favor of Microsoft's Windows Phone OS--yet early signs are that the move hasn't done enough. Indeed, Reuters recently quoted a senior executive at a European carrier as stating that if Nokia offered its Lumia smartphone hardware "with Android in it and not Windows, it would be much easier to sell". There have been some gems--the PureView camera technology that debuted in the Nokia 808 PureView phone has gained the company a huge amount of positive press, for example. There's still a lot to do for Nokia to turn itself around, though.

The company clearly understands that fact. Earlier today, it announced numerous moves intended to strengthen its position. Nokia has ditched its luxury Vertu mobile phone brand, selling it to a private equity group for a reported €200 million, and retaining just a ten percent shareholding. It's also announced layoffs of some 10,000 staff worldwide by the end of 2013, as well as numerous facilities that will close: a factory in Finland, and R&D centers in both Germany and Canada. It's also announced a plan--with assistance from new OS partner Microsoft--to try and gain visibility at retail by offering feature phones at lower prices.

Scalado Rewind lets you reach back in time to fix subjects' expressions.

Of the various strategic moves made today, one stands out to us as photographers, though. Nokia has announced plans to acquire Swedish software company Scalado AB, a company we've mentioned quite a few times on our news page over the last decade. It's an interesting choice, and one that reinforces the importance with which Nokia sees the imaging capabilities of its phones. Scalado creates imaging software for various mobile platforms, both for other companies to integrate into their products, and for retail sale to the end user. Among its products are a variety of solutions for image capture, viewing, and editing. Scalado has collaborated with some of the biggest names in the business over the years, including Intel, Aptina, and Qualcomm. In fact, even the creators of the Symbian OS that the Finnish phone maker is moving away from signed a deal with Scalado, shortly before their takeover by Nokia.

There are some real attention-grabbers in the mix. Scalado Rewind allows you to step backwards or forwards in time around the point when the shutter button was pressed, but it's a local change rather than a global one, allowing you to correct for a specific individual who blinked at the moment of capture, for example. Scalado Remove works to detect moving objects in a scene, and essentially erase them, leaving just your subject(s) standing--apparently by themselves--in front of the background. Scalado Multi-Angle is similar to something we've seen from Sony, but with a twist: you sweep your camera around an object, and can then view that object from various angles simply by turning your viewing device.

With Scalado Remove, visitor-packed landmarks can be yours alone.

Of course, the showy tech isn't necessarily the most useful. While we've yet to see any of these in real-world products, under-the-hood technologies from Scalado have gained some traction already. The company's random-access JPEG (or RAJPEG) tech, for example, allows faster viewing and thumbnailing of images by providing for decompressing and displaying just part of an image, rather than the whole thing at once, as is typically the case. Scalado SpeedTags, meanwhile, underlies some of the flashier functionality, allowing speedy burst-capture that lets the camera reach back in time to grab an image from before the shutter was pressed, or to shoot a burst of images and automatically select the best result for saving. Finally, SpeedView allows faster image browsing / viewing by storing added information about images in the metadata.

And then there's the retail software, including an album application for Android devices, and a virtual projector app for iOS devices.

Scalado Multi-Angle lets you give a realistic perspective of small objects.

The acquisition of Scalado by Nokia is still pending, and the companies currently expect the deal to close in the third quarter of this year. If the takeover proceeds, Nokia says that it will acquire the developers, technologies, and intellectual property of Scalado. That company would still exist as a separate entity, and its existing customer agreements would be retained. That would suggest that development would likewise continue for Android and iOS platforms, at least for existing products, although a Nokia-owned Scalado would seem to have a big reason to focus its efforts on Microsoft's Windows Phone platform in the interests of its parent. If the deal goes ahead, it will be interesting to see what Scalado and Nokia can do together. Hands up, anybody interested in a PureView phone that can reach back in time to fix poses, and automatically remove passers-by! ;-)