Amazon, Nokia and Motorola Gun for Apple’s iPhone
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Amazon, Nokia and Motorola Gun for Apple’s iPhone

REUTERS/Brendan McDermid

The battle for smartphone supremacy just got dialed up a notch.

Amazon is expected to announce its own Android-based phone Thursday, according to a report from tech and science website The Verge citing multiple unnamed sources. That follows a less-than-typically cryptic invitation from Apple to a media event it’s hosting on September 12 in San Francisco. After months of rumors, speculation, leaked photos and product specs, the invitation – which teases, “It’s almost here” above a large “12” and a faint, shadowy “5” – is being interpreted as a strong hint that Apple will, as expected, publicly announce the iPhone 5.

But before Apple’s next big thing arrives, Nokia and Google’s Motorola Mobility on Wednesday unveiled what they hope will be their own next big things – or in Nokia’s case, the product that will at least help it regain relevance at a time when consumers continue their migration from traditional cellphones to smarter, more powerful models. Once the leader in the handset market, Nokia has stumbled in its competition with the likes of Apple and Samsung, which earlier this year took over as the No. 1 manufacturer of mobile phones.

As it introduced two new phones, Nokia made clear that it’s going to make a marketing push encouraging iPhone and Android users to switch to its Lumia line. It’s not exactly an easy sell, even if early reviewers liked the overall looks of Nokia’s new flagship Lumia 920 and its mid-level Lumia 820.
The high-end handset will work on 4G LTE networks and have built-in wireless charging, a sharp 4.5-inch touch-screen display, speedy 1.5GHz dual core processor and a clear emphasis on imaging, with an 8.7 megapixel camera and a lens that Nokia says takes in five times more light than other smartphone cameras, producing vivid pictures even indoors.

But from a business and consumer standpoint, its most notable feature may be that it’s powered by Microsoft’s new Windows Phone 8 operating system. Nokia is betting its future on its alliance with Microsoft, but the new phone aren’t just key for Nokia and its CEO, Stephen Elop, but for the Redmond, Wash., software giant that has thus far struggled to get a foothold in the mobile market.

"While the new phones unveiled Wednesday are seen as more critical to Nokia's prospects, the announcement also is important to Microsoft and its push into the smartphone business," Microsoft CEO Steve Ballmer said, according to The Wall Street Journal. Ballmer had joined Elop, who used to run Microsoft’s business division, on stage at the event and predicted that, a year from now, nearly 400 million new devices – PCs, tablets and phones – will be running some version of Windows 8. But the companies disappointed gadget geeks by not providing more details about the new operating system, or full details on the pricing and expected availability of the phones. Unimpressed, investors drove Nokia shares down nearly 16 percent to $2.38.

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So perhaps it’s a good thing for Microsoft that it isn’t counting only on Nokia in the mobile market. Samsung had preempted Nokia’s announcement by announcing its own Windows 8 phone last week. HTC, struggling with declining sales, has a media event scheduled for September 19 at which it’s expected to reveal its own Windows 8 phones. Eventually, though, Microsoft may opt to make its own handsets, much as it is doing with its recently announced Surface tablets. That’s the way the industry is going – following Apple’s model of controlling all aspects of a product’s design.

That all brings us to Motorola Mobility. Just hours after Nokia’s event, Motorola hosted its own gathering for reporters and introduced three svelte new phones – the Droid Razr HD, Droid Razr Maxx HD and Droid Razr M – available exclusively from Verizon Wireless. New CEO Dennis Woodside reportedly filled in the assembled media on Motorola’s strategy of focusing on speed, battery life and, of course, the Android operating system now that the cellphone maker is owned by Google. “We want our users to know that if you want the best Android device possible, you should look at Motorola,” Woodside said.

But as they try to drum up excitement ahead of the holiday shopping season, Google, Motorola, Nokia and Microsoft know that Apple’s announcement is looming – and could still steal away enthusiasm for their new releases. And Apple now has a little something to prove. Despite its recent $1.05 billion victory is its patent-infringement lawsuit against Samsung, Apple’s older iPhone 4S model has been losing ground to Samsung’s Galaxy S3 model. With consumers still waiting for the iPhone 5, the Samsung model surpassed the iPhone 4S as the top-selling handset last month.
So the details announced next week will go a long way to determining whether or how quickly Apple regains that lost momentum and reasserts its dominance. As Apple’s invitation suggests – and as Nokia and the other smartphone players well know – the iPhone casts a long shadow.