Happy Birthday, Lumia: Don’t Stop Being Awesome

Two years ago tomorrow the very first Nokia Lumia smartphones, the product of a frantic 8-month turnaround, went on sale to the general public. Although the Lumia range is now in a completely different place to just 24 months ago — heck, owned by different people — it’s more important than ever for Lumia to keep being awesome.

It’s been a pretty tough first two years of life for the Lumia range. Born out of a strategic partnership first announced in February 2011, Lumia has always had huge amounts riding on it for its parents, Microsoft and Nokia. For Microsoft, Lumia has represented Windows Phone’s only real shot at becoming a significant player in the mobile market; but for Nokia, Lumia was even more of a gamble.

Back in 2011, Nokia still had some sway in the mobile phone market — heck, up until April 2012, Nokia still shipped the most mobile phones of any manufacturer in the world. So, for Nokia to stake its reputation and future profits on a fledgling mobile OS, rather than going the way of the Android, represented a huge leap of faith for the company, and particularly Nokia’s CEO, ex-Microsoft man Stephen Elop.

So, two years, five flagship smartphones and one sale of the company to Microsoft later, has it paid off? Sort of.

Financially, no. Over the last nine quarters before its sale of its devices business to Microsoft, Nokia lost a whopping $6.19 billion — not exactly good business. The sales figures for the phones, however, are slightly more encouraging — in the second quarter this year, Nokia sold 7.4 million Lumias, surpassing Blackberry for the first time, and firmly entrenching Windows Phone as the ‘third OS’ after Android and iOS.

Looking at the hardware, as well, it’s been a pretty good year for Nokia so far. In 2013, Nokia’s successfully introduced an impressive new flagship phone, the Lumia 925; a jaw-dropping camera packed inside a smartphone’s body with the Lumia 1020, and even a pair of phablets (ugh) in the shape of the Lumia 1320 and Lumia 1520. So, at the very least, Nokia’s kept up with the competition.

This is a good thing. The world desperately needs a third smartphone operating system, to keep things interesting and to give the mainstream-hating hipsters options. Arguably, the smartphone camera race that’s been the only interesting hardware battle of 2013 has been sparked by Nokia and their near-dominance in the smartphone camera industry.

But it’s more than just cameras — for the last two years, the Lumia range has been pushing the boundaries of quirkiness, stuffing in new features because they could, because you might want them, because no-one else was. From the quite-interesting, like the 920′s wireless charging, down to Nokia’s surprisingly-well-executed City Lens augmented reality app, even to the fact that pretty much every flagship Lumia handset has shipped in a range of colours that you just don’t get from any other high-end smartphone manufacturer (shush, iPhone 5C owners) — Lumia’s been quietly challenging every other smartphone manufacturer out there for all of its brief existence.

There’s another important function that the Lumia range serves, as well: making cheap phones that don’t look and feel like crap. Whilst there are lots of cheapo Android phones on the market for you to choose from, the recipe for all is dismally similar: get an underpowered processor from last year’s spare parts bin, whack on a version of Android at least three generations old and bloated to hell, cover with a thin veneer of flimsy plastic, and chuck it on shelves next to last year’s Blackberry Curve. Cheap Lumias, on the other hand, retain Nokia’s legendary industrial design chops, generally look half-decent, and thanks to Windows Phone’s ability to run well on a low-powered processor, aren’t actually frustrating to use.

So where does this leave us, going forward? With Microsoft’s purchase of Nokia’s device division, it’s clear that the Lumia brand will keep propping up Windows Phone for at least the forseeable future. Whether or not Nokia’s institutional wackiness lives on, though, remains to be seen.

There’s certainly a danger that Microsoft will want to capitalise on Windows Phone’s low-end success — the 520 is rumoured to be by far and away the best-selling Lumia device — but hopefully, Microsoft will still let at least some of the Finnish engineers pursue economically crazy projects.

After all, Microsoft’s no stranger to money-losing vanity projects.

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