Why Microsoft should never have stopped making camera-focused phones

Lumia 1020 back
Lumia 1020 back (Image credit: Windows Central)

Microsoft's purchase of Nokia's smartphone business in 2014 added the industry's leading mobile camera technology to its portfolio of assets. Pre-Microsoft, the Nokia 808 PureView smartphone with a 41 MP camera showcased the integration of quality imaging technology with a mobile device.

Nokia's innovative aptitude was evident in both its development of hardware and software critical to mobile imaging tech. This was later complemented with imaging-focused Lumia (formerly Nokia) exclusive apps, after Nokia embraced Windows phones.

For example, augmented reality (AR) via Nokia City Lens was part of Microsoft's ecosystem in 2012, years before AR became "the next big thing." What impact might Microsoft's giving up on smartphones, and by default, its mobile imaging hardware and software investments, have on its AI and mixed reality strategy?

'Cameras as a platform'

Microsoft's previous commitment to "cameras as a platform" (an evolving UI and platform for various apps) was evident in its Camera Lens concept. Users could interact with the world via different imaging apps that were invoked from the camera. The Lumia 1020, with its 41 MP camera and a UI with granular manual controls, also demonstrated Microsoft's commitment to mobile imaging technology. Microsoft introduced hardware Optical Imaging Stabilization (OIS), access to RAW images, and other leading imaging tech long before major competitors.

Nokia City Lens (above video) used the Windows phone camera to search the physical world and overlaid information about surrounding businesses and places of interest on-screen as Microsoft's early steps into AR. Nokia JobLens performed a similar function to reveal potential places of employment for job seekers. This was years before Pokémon Go introduced smartphone-based AR to the masses in 2016.

AI on smartphone cameras is gaining experience that will benefit advanced AR.

Nokia's substantial investments in mobile imaging technology seem to indicate an early realization that smartphone cameras were an evolving platform in themselves. Google and Apple, with a range of camera-focused investments including AI-supported object recognition, facial recognition and Animojis, AR, more sophisticated camera hardware and more, have come to this realization.

Sadly, Microsoft, which had the necessary assets and talent, didn't seem to recognize or value the evolving smartphone camera as a platform. When it cut smartphones it threw away the baby with the bath water.

AR and camera-based AI

To Microsoft's dismay, billions of smartphone users are engaging in an evolving camera-based smartphone experience that transcends merely taking pictures. With integrated AI, built-in features and first- and third-party apps, smartphone cameras are recognizing people, surroundings, creating AR experiences, and much more. Google developers recently created an app that uses AI and a phone's front-facing camera to alert a user that someone is reading over their shoulders.

AI on smartphone cameras is "experiencing" a diverse range of scenarios. This data will ultimately benefit environment, activity and behavior recognition and understanding for implementation in advanced AR experiences. Data is key to machine learning and AI development. As consumers engage AI on iPhone and Android phone camera platforms, Apple and Google are acquiring vital information to evolve their AI and camera platforms.

Microsoft kept Windows 10 Mobile alive to continue development of ARM and cellular technology for future implementation in project "Andromeda." Perhaps continued investments in camera-focused smartphones (for a niche market) over the years would have allowed ongoing development of Microsoft's camera as a platform.

Though it wouldn't have had Apple's and Google's market presence, the Windows phone user base would have been a valuable resource to contribute feedback to Microsoft's camera-as-a-platform efforts (even if operating at a temporary financial loss). This data would, in turn, be transferred to the company's leading mixed reality and AI efforts.

The cost of cutting smartphones

Microsoft, Apple, Google and other companies see AR as personal computing's future. AR hardware and software must, therefore, be able to accurately perceive and understand its environment. Quality optical hardware, software and AI are fundamental to AR's evolution. Thus, smartphone-focused cameras as a platform is an evolving component that adds value to a company's AR efforts.

Microsoft's cutting smartphone resulted in its cutting Nokia talent responsible for innovative camera tech. Absence from the smartphone space also erased what little mindshare Windows phones achieved as a result of its camera prowess. If AR is the future of computing, mobile camera technology is key.

Ironically, the recent publishing of a patent filed in 2016 by ex-Nokia employee and lead inventor Eero Tuulos reveals Microsoft's attempts to solve for the positioning of a camera on a folding mobile device. Indeed, if Microsoft had kept marketing camera-focused smartphones, the continued investments in mobile imaging technology may have beneficially impacted the implementation of this patents idea in the folding mobile device we believe Microsoft is working on.

A missed opportunity ...

Microsoft has demonstrated powerful AI-driven camera technology (using existing camera systems) that can recognize people, places, and activity and proactively act on what it sees. The merging of that level of AI with its mixed reality efforts is likely inevitable.

Still, the evolving of miniature mobile camera tech and software, the data gleaned from AI-human interactions on mobile camera platforms and the mindshare and goodwill even a niche camera-focused phone would have provided for application in wearable AR tech is likely a missed opportunity for Microsoft.

Windows phone refugees may not find asylum on Android

Jason L Ward is a columnist at Windows Central. He provides unique big picture analysis of the complex world of Microsoft. Jason takes the small clues and gives you an insightful big picture perspective through storytelling that you won't find *anywhere* else. Seriously, this dude thinks outside the box. Follow him on Twitter at @JLTechWord. He's doing the "write" thing!

132 Comments
  • Microsoft never had the capability or willingness to do so. It was Nokia. When Nokia sold its phone division to Microsoft, this camera tech development went out with it.
  • Well, they need to get it back with future Ultramoble Surface products.
  • In our dreams only.... There is no dev or company in the world still believing in Microsoft, just too many lies, and too many sdk changes (and bugged software...)
  • Some of the camera gurus made the transition, namely Juha Alarkhu one of the co-creators of pureview. He was axed along with the other talented individuals during the mobile division cut off. Some of them went to Apple.
    As I said, time and time again. These moves have been nothing more than short term quarter to quarter gains. This short sightedness has cost Microsoft heavily and will continue to cost them heavily if they continue on this trend. Satya Nadella is going to run out of short term growth moves pretty soon.
    If he does not make the transitional play now. As opposed to chasing the next 'big thing'. The next 'big thing' requires a foundation to build upon, you don't build a house on thin air. You build it on solid ground.
    If he does not focus on transitional play (UWP) He and his SLT (except phil and xbox) will have regressed Microsoft pre-DOS.
    Because that is where they will be heading if they do not focus on UWP.
    In short they will become a laughing stock on the entire planet. It will be the biggest case study on how to take a successful company and run into the ground.
    Yes, I know worse case scenario and very harsh words. Because I want Microsoft to succeed and they have the capacity to do what others can't, change the world for the betterment of humanity.
  • Well said ms lost its focus and had missed priorities. Yes they r doing well on cloud but now they r not a leader with monopoly there, they have strong competition from Amazon. They need the diversity in tbeir offerings which means mobile cant be ignored. Irrespective of what wc writers say I don't agree that MS has a mobile strategy. Uwp has been neglected the same way as w10m which means that the ultramobile device will be doa due to lack of ecosystem. If ppl say that a hero device will stimulate the ecosystem then they should look at hololens. Ms failed to fully utilize its potential n same wud be the case for ultramobile unicorn
  • Microsoft has a mobile strategy of sorts and that's to use their competition's user base. But that is the most naive form of business, as it benefits your competition and harms your own growth potential. It's like up rooting a tree and place it into a swamp full of weeds. Sure, the weeds will get some shade during the summer but at cost of health of the tree as over time it will wither and be smothered by the same weeds it once provided shade for during the summer heat. When the UWP platform was unveiled it there was nothing beyond that as it was to be the defacto standard. But Microsoft neglected it under Satya Nadella's leadership. The reasons hololens didn't take off, lack of UWP apps, availability and willingness to take risks. Hololens is only available in 29 more markets from last month..... Whilst Apple is using their current mobile platform to transition users to AR through the ARkit. The biggest gripe I have is that Microsoft has completely lost sight of any transitional stages, in order to chase the next shiny thing like magpies. What are they going to based PWA's and Project Rome on? Thin air? Smh... The UWP platform spans more than just hololens, their entire mix reality platform is dependent on UWP. PWAs aren't going cut it. Think about it, you will need a constant web connection, which means you have a chip that is going to get very hot next to your cranium. What happens when browse the web on your phone for long periods? It slowly get's warm doesn't it? Now imagine that strapped ontop your skull... not a very pleasent experience. In my book Satya Nadella has until Spring 2018, because by then if Windows on ARM fails due to lack of focus on UWP. He should be fired, no ifs, no buts. He has had his chances, he has not followed through on his actions, he has lost almost all trust due to no follow through. He promised to target the duo user - he failed in that regards when it comes to the Windows Ecosystem. He promised to build phones for businesses, budget and enthusiasts. He failed. On his watch Android surpassed Windows as the most interacted O/S, the number of installs has plataued at 600 million, well short of the billion devices that they bragged about. Plus he took Microsoft out wearables and the smartphone market, where it is forecasted that almost 9 billion smartphones will ship between now and 2020. Think about, it 9 billion devices shipped. There was a market for Windows Phones. The problem with Windows Phones is that people think you have to compete to stay relevant and for market share, sure to a certain extent you do. But take a look at Surface, Bing, Xbox it took each of them awhile before they were profitable. But Windows Phone was not given a chance under Satya Nadella. They could have leveraged cshell and changed the game, but nope so another transitional play failure. Announcing consumer retrenchment before your biggest hardware launch?
    Logic and empathy fail. On the personal side, his lesson on empathy was a being told that if you came across a hurt child, you hug the poor kid and make sure they are safe before calling 911. Empathy is natural skill and also learned skill. But the latter is confined by logic, rules and perception principles of morality and ethics, the former is governed by perspective and logic within or beyond the boundaries of morality and ethics - on the highest level - foresight. You need perspective, logic and foresight to be a well rounded CEO. So that you can steer a path for the company that is profitable and one that increases your branches of reach. A company is a tree (hence the term branches), it needs customers (nutrients) to grow, it needs people (employees) to maintain it (upkeep during harsh periods). Satya Nadella has shown he is not a well rounded CEO, given his penchent for focusing on short term quarter to quarter growths. Because as long he shows profits, he is 'safe' from scruitiny. But the clock is ticking, no one is safe from scruitiny indefinitely. I know this a long comment, but it's come to point that every single factor to date is coalescing towards a state that does not look good for Microsoft and by extension everyone else. Why? Microsoft is not the only company that is working on real time AI driven identification of people and problems via security cameras. As Microsoft has a vested interest in ensuring privacy of all users, using their services and technology. So they are bound to take legal measure to prevent governmental missteps and misuse of such surveilance. Just one example why I want Microsoft to suceed as a diverse company. I could type more, but i've typed far too much already and this comment will end up as a novel.
  • Wow. Nicely said!
  • Some great illustrations and points TechFreak1, and a good article Jason. I was thinking recently how I remember the PureView and first tentatice AR steps Nokia took years ago.
  • Indeed. Disaster... Utter disaster!
  • "If he does not focus on transitional play (UWP) He and his SLT (except phil and xbox) will have regressed Microsoft pre-DOS." Microsoft's stock price is doing exactly what? And outpacing the stockmarket as a whole? Oh. Hmm. Seems like Microsoft under Nadella is doing just fine. In fact, if I'd been an investor in Microsoft five years ago I would be ecstatic! And, the moves now seem to be exactly what Microsoft needs. Microsoft is no longer a software company. They've truly transitioned to providing services and that's much more lucrative than consumer grade software. Apple has gone the same way, except for the fact that Apple's Mac hardware division still provides good ROI.
  • Microsoft had/has the capability but not willing to do.
  • Have to agree that MS could have had a differentiator if it had kept on pushing that 1020 line. Yeah, the camera was huge and bulged out a bit, but it took amazing pictures. You could even "zoom" without optical zoom.  It wasn't perfect, but my wife really liked hers. The stabilization on the camera made for great shots. The pixels meant you could capture great images. The lens was good so you got good pictures.  I think she'd have kept using that if she hadn't dropped it and messed up the screen (and sadly, that camera, too). I got her a 950, which is okay, but not in the same class at all. Having the 1020 meant she didn't feel a need to carry a separate camera, something that hadn't been the case before.
  • When MS announced the cancellation of McLaren (L1030), WP started going downhill ever since.  Nadella provided the final blow in July 2015 with his entrenchment speech, three months before the release of W10M and L950.  That concluded the end game for WP as the result of years of MS mismanagement at the top.  Stupid and shame.
  • And 1020 was only first edition. Hardware improvements and refinements could have continued to make this a leader even if they switched to android.
  • Actually no, the 808 was the first edition. AT&T pushed Nokia for the 1020, rumours have it was to be 909 and surpass the 808 in every conceivable way. But due to pressure from AT&T it was pushed on a ailing SOC with no dedicated imaging chip.
  • Microsoft became a bunch of greedy morons. They kind of deserve getting out of mobile. Competition is not for wannabes. You take it, own it, do it! Nothing of what Microsoft is able to do. They give up at every cent going out. Sometimes i wander how come they got this far with this mentality
  • Well, to be fair, the purpose of business is to make money.  I don't think "greed" had anything to do with it.  I think the combination of being late to the game, lack of a unified vision for the various segments within Microsoft, and ultimately Satya Nadella coming in with the agenda to get rid of phones right off the bat were all largely to blame.
  • Yeah, well, you can't make money stepping on people trust;). Their is a reason why it takes so much time to receive customers trust;). It is not like, now you ****, tomorrow you have tones of money. They did a LOT of wrong things in the last seven years. From killing Nokia, to killing their customers trust. If that ain't greed, i do not know what is it. Cause for sure, they received a lot of money from layoffs and destroying the only real competition to apple and Samsung. In the world of mafia giants, Nokia had no place with a third highly secured system... No cloud bullshit and information leak at every second or app installed;). New world disorder.
  • This entire article is a useless exercise in wishful thinking (moreso than usual) because it starts from a completely WRONG premisse:   "Microsoft's purchase of Nokia's smartphone business in 2014 added the industry's leading mobile camera technology to its portfolio of assets."   No. For the billionth time, Nokia kept ALL the patents and technologies regarding the cameras, even after the deal. Microsoft got ZERO patents or tech for the cameras. They entered a non-exclusive LICENSING deal with Nokia for those technologies which was what allowed them to keep the great cameras on the Lumia 950. So for Microsoft to keep making camera focused smartphones, they'd need to continue licensing the tech from Nokia upon which to base further development. Which would be a waste of money because no one ever wanted Windows Phones. As history has proven, people were buying Lumias because they were "Nokia phones". Not because they wanted Windows Phone. Which is why all Microsoft branded phones flopped. So Microsoft really didn't have much of a platform to develop "smartphone camera as a platform".
  • You're saying that MS still couldn't be licensing that tech today??????? 🤔
  • They could. They can. But so can everyone else. LG is doing it for example. But Nokia will not sign any exclusivity deal with Microsoft for use of their imaging patents. Microsoft would have to pay billions for that to happen (enough to cover any *potentially* lost licensing deals Nokia would make without that exclusivity. And Microsoft obviously ins't interested in that.
  • You're right about one thing... Microsoft should have never branded their phone "Windows" anything!  They should have come up with something else. 
  • "No one ever wanted Windows Phones"?  That's no accurate.  Millions did.  And, to be fair, they crept into double-digit market share in some places.  There WERE getting a small foothold, which requred them to make very smart moves to exploit that.  Microsoft did the exact opposite and, once Nadella came on board, he put the nail in the coffin since he didn't think there needed to be a third ecosystem.
  • Not nearly enough for Microsoft to care. Android and iPhone sell millions per day. Microsoft was selling millions per quarter. That is basically no one.
  • "That's no accurate.  Millions did."   Actually, millions wanted a Nokia phone. Not a Windows Phone. Which is why as soon as Nokia went away and the phones stopped carrying the Nokia logo in them, the sales sunk faster than the Titanic and the entire project died. The foothold created was created through the sheer power of the Nokia brand, nothing else. Once that was removed, Microsoft was left with nothing. Nadella came on board and did the right thing. He knew that withough Nokia, Windows Phone didn't stood a chance. He knew the attack on Nokia's D&S division was a mistake. And he had to deal with Ballmer's dumb decisions. Microsoft was never actually committed to Windows Phone. All the advancements the OS got on WP7.5, 7.8, 8.0, 8.1, all those GDR's, they were all because Nokia wanted to do things with the phones that the OS didn't support.
  • Not only that, Nokia didn't even have the right camera technology needed for AI or mixed reality. Those all belong to Samsung and Apple. If you recall at that time, the Nokia cameras were good making use of poor hardware after the picture was taken, but Samsung and Apple cameras had the best real-time processing. (Don't get me wrong, I loved my 1020, but in no way was it suited for mixed reality. It couldn't even take a picture in under 2 seconds.) The premise of the article isn't supported by history. Perhaps had Microsoft had access to today's technology three or four years ago, but the hardware they were using back then does not appear on a path to the kind of technology described in the article.
  • 1020 was failed by hardware. Ms was always a gen behind in supporting new socs on w10m as a result the compromise on speed as u saw. Doesn't mean that capability wasnt there 
  • Nokia had the technology, actually (the forray into VR after the deal was a result of that). But Nokia didn't have an OS that supported the hardware. They were constantly dragged down by the dead-weight that was Windows Phone. It drove product managers and Nokia engineers mad to constantly having to fight against a OS that Microsoft was only "sort of, kinda, when we get a minute" developing.
  • No, actually hardware was above average. Nokia 808 had a special chip dedicated to image processing. This was for some reason not carried over to 1020 so that's why it struggled. Nokia was probably hoping for 1020 to be a hit and follow up with proper successor that never materialized.
  • Didn't they sign something with canon to use their lenses as well? Such fail...
  • Camera features should have always been the focus for Windows Mobile phones. Many people jumped in on the platform, because of the cameras. The creativity focus that MS is on should have been built around the camera and creative software. Having moved on to the Note 8, I still feel that the experience with Windows Camera software is still one, if not the best, camera experiences to date. Don't get me wrong, the Note 8 takes great pictures and the software is pretty good.
  • It was.
  • The camera features combined with the original PhotoHub was absolutely the best!  I miss the PhotoHub!
  • I still have my 1020 and it was the main resion I wanted a Windows phone, but I also wanted a system that was Windows centric. I know I will eventually have to move on, but my Lumia 950 is still working fine, unlike my now failed Band. I am still a Surface user and my Desktop is also Windows, but I agree MS blew it when they failed to promote the Win Phone and all its features when they were making headway outside of the US. I also agree that the Nokia brand was a key factor in people buying these phones. J am not looking forward to the day when I have to move to Android.  
  • The camera was the reason I had the 1020, it's a shame really they gave up on mobile
  • Agree
  • Before I say this, I should note that I'm a fan of Windows mobile and the Lumia 950 is my daily driver. That said, dude, you've got blinders on. Microsoft has many focuses, two of them being AI and AR. Let's not muddy the waters here, failed attempt(s) at gaining consumer market share of Windows on phones isn't that big of a missed opportunity in terms of AI/AR. For all of us fans still out there, please stop reaching with these types of articles.
  • Hi themaddened thanks for the feedback, but if you look at the development of AI and AR and the data Apple and Google are collecting on cameras as a platform, this is an area that could have benefited Microsoft .
  • I think you are focusing on the wrong aspects of the article. The fact that Windows Phones weren't gaining market share is irrelevent, Jason even states that these camera focused Lumia's would have been a niche market. The point is that Microsoft could have leveraged these devices to further research and development into the future of AR/AI. Similar to why Windows Mobile is still being worked on, to help Microsoft better understand Windows on ARM. 
  • Thanks raidenfan, you got the gist😉
  • Also theemaddnesd here is an excerpt I believe you missed: "Microsoft kept Windows 10 Mobile alive to con