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July 11, 2013

Q&A: How Nokia and Microsoft collaborated to create the groundbreaking new Lumia 1020 with Windows Phone 8

We often talk about how closely we work with Nokia. But what might not always be so obvious is just how tight-knit this collaboration is and the role it plays in the development of groundbreaking Windows Phones like Nokia’s new Lumia 1020 with its 41-megapixel camera sensor.

So this week I wrangled some time with Nokia’s Kevin Shields and Windows Phone’s Joe Belfiore, two corporate vice presidents on the front lines of this joint smartphone force. It turns out these guys have more in common than just job titles and smarts. They’re also friends outside the office. So I asked them for an update on the collaboration between the two companies and how it figured into today’s big announcement—plus got the scoop on some of their recent post-work adventures.

What role did Windows Phone play in developing the Lumia 1020 and its groundbreaking camera?

Kevin Shields: Well, it played a critical role. It’s easy to get fixated on this one feature—this terrific 41-megapixel sensor that we’re shipping—but there was a lot of unseen work on the Windows Phone side that went into it: plumbing and UI [user interface] changes to bring out the best of that component and make the camera experience possible. Our collaboration with Microsoft was super important to making the Lumia 1020 the great product that it is.

Nokia's Kevin Shields and Microsoft's Joe Belfiore compare wine apps on a joint family trip to Italy and the Grand Canal.

Joe Belfiore: Our goal is to work with our partners as if we were a single organization, designing hardware and software together. This approach to collaboration is unique across companies and not something I think you see Google doing with Android. The Lumia 1020 is a great example. Nokia came to us with the idea for building this amazing camera, and we had to find the right ways to improve the platform so they could deliver the best imaging experience on any phone, anywhere.

What are some specific examples of how this collaboration worked and how the Windows Phone OS helped?

Joe: We know the OS deeply and add that kind of thinking to the mix. So we spent time together working on the architecture so the 1020 camera can capture two images at once—a super high-res shot and an oversampled 5-megapixel version for easier sharing. And we shared early builds of software and hardware so we could give each other feedback on the work in progress—I think I wrote more than 10 pages of feedback myself on the Nokia Pro Camera app as it was being developed.

We also added new features to the Windows Phone code— improving the zoom capability of our photo viewer, for example, so you can zoom in further on a larger-resolution image. A lot of the work we do in Windows Phone is “under the covers”—but the results show both in the killer new phones that have been coming out month after month and in the software that Nokia has delivered on the platform.

Kevin: Besides the “under the covers” things Joe mentioned, there’s also simple but incredibly important things like Windows Phone’s overall navigation experience. When a consumer picks up the product, it just make logical sense how to operate it. And Windows Phone does a terrific job of sharing images. I know this from personal experience. When we moved to Finland, this quickly became the way my wife communicated with our friends and family back in the States. It’s just so easy to snap a picture, put a comment on it, and upload it to Facebook to stay connected.

The way Windows Phone is architected to switch between camera Lens apps is also really novel and intuitive. The last thing I’d point to is what Windows Phone does with Live Tiles, which really help bring to life things like images and the updates from your social network. So those are just some examples of where the Windows Phone OS really helps us bring crazy technology like the 41-megapixel sensor even more to life.

I noticed Joe referred to this new Windows Phone as a “camera” a few moments ago. Which is it?

Kevin: It’s both a phone camera and a camera phone. To me, the fact that it blurs those lines equals success. As a consumer, you reasonably expect to carry your phone with you at all times. You don’t carry a camera with you at all times. With the Lumia 1020, you’re doing both. The camera in this product is so good, you can leave your pocket camera behind and you can even think twice about your DSLR and not have to compromise. I know this from personal experience having carried it now for a couple of months.

Last year Nokia released the 808, a Symbian phone that also sported a 41-megapixel sensor. How is the Lumia 1020 different?

Kevin: To answer that, I need to step back for a second. When we shipped the Lumia 920, it was the first time anybody put optical image stabilization [OIS] technology in a broadly available smartphone. We really broke down a barrier when we did that. The low-light performance of the Lumia 920 is incredible because OIS holds the sensor still and keeps the shutter open longer so you can capture more light. The 808, meanwhile, was trailblazing because it was the first phone to deliver such an insanely large image sensor. The notion of putting a sensor that big inside a phone—much less a camera—is a little bit crazy. But the sharpness that it delivered was spectacular.

What you see in the Lumia 1020 is the combination of those two things, and a whole lot more: It has all the benefits of a huge sensor combined with the incredible sharpness of next generation optical image stabilization technology that we spearheaded in the Lumia 920. So the 1020 is bringing together a number of powerful technologies that haven’t been delivered together before. Another key point is that while some DSLRs have sensor technology that’s competitive with what’s in the Nokia Lumia 1020, a DSLR doesn’t have the processing power a Windows Phone has.

Joe: And a DSLR can’t post to Facebook or Twitter.

Does the Lumia 1020 represent what Nokia was hoping for when it partnered with Microsoft?

Kevin: It’s another milepost on a highway that’s already littered with great mileposts. For example, the optical image stabilization work on the 920 that I just mentioned also required a really deep collaboration, and I’m super proud of how that turned out.

You’ve both mentioned how the partnership has helped Nokia innovate on software. Tell me more about this new Nokia Pro Camera app that comes with the 1020.

Kevin: What we aspired to with Nokia Pro Camera was to expose the raw native power of the 1020’s camera but do it in a way that lets both photo enthusiasts and average consumers take terrific photos. Nokia Pro Camera has a number of great benefits. As Joe mentioned, one of the key ones is that it actually lays down two different images at the same time. It gives a full resolution 34- or 38-megapixel image (depending on which aspect ratio you’re using), and a highly optimized 5-megapixel image that’s terrific for sharing.

It also has specific features to help consumers learn how to use the camera’s advanced features, you know, the ones that people who buy DSLRs typically have trouble wrapping their heads around? The UI is really simple to interact with and puts guard rails up for you. It not only makes it easy to take advantage of this incredible technology, but educates you as it goes along by helping you discover settings that lead to interesting results.

What some people reading this probably don’t know is that you guys are friends outside work and go back a bit. Joe, you tweeted a picture of Kevin at Nokia headquarters a few weeks ago. Any backstory?

Joe: Kevin’s son and my son are the same age and they’ve known each other for years, so we got them together in Europe this summer. Our families met up in Italy, and then Kevin’s family graciously hosted mine for some sightseeing in Finland. I did a few days of work at Nokia—man there’s some cool work happening in Espoo and Salo and Tampere!—but this was mostly vacation. We spent some time seeing Helsinki, visiting a number of islands in the beautiful Finnish Archipelago. I even ran a marathon in the lovely city of Turku. I would have been faster if I hadn’t been on vacation. [ed. In case you’re curious, Joe ran a 4:10.]



Kevin:  Maybe you would have been faster if you ate healthier food the week before!

Nice. The Lumia 1020 seems like it’ll be hard to top. Where do Nokia and Microsoft go together from here?

Joe: Nokia has been a terrific partner in dreaming up innovative new hardware and great services and apps—some you’ve seen and some still to come—and I’m looking forward to more innovative work together on the boundary of hardware and software.

Kevin: Yep, as amazing as this is, we still have some stuff up our sleeves. We’re not gonna sit still.