Are people more important than apps? Microsoft, Nokia and AT&T are betting on it.

Today is the second day of CES and out of everything I’ve heard so far one line in particular, from AT&T CEO of Mobility Ralph de la Vega, struck me more than anything else. Speaking of the Windows Phone 7 platform in general, but also specifically about the new Nokia Lumia 900, Ralph said that the phone is “built around people, not applications.”

There’s no doubt that Microsoft is battling RIM for last place in the smartphone market. Even Android, once a laughing stock for it’s complete lack of apps, is today a solid #2 platform behind Apple in terms of both quantity and quality of apps. De La Vega’s quote struck me because it finally admitted something we in the industry all know: Microsoft is in no position to compete with Apple on apps. Apple customers are paying customers, and they buy apps in droves. Apple’s App Store is the most profitable mobile marketplace by a long shot, attracting the hottest developers and most exciting apps first.

But can people replace apps as the new metric by which a phone platform is judged? How would that even work? A phone, by nature, is designed to connect people. Exciting new social media apps have launched exclusively and successfully on Apple’s platform, including huge hits like Instagram. So what do Microsoft and Nokia mean when they talk about people? Tight Facebook integration for one. The world’s largest social network has it’s own experience on the Lumia 900.

But it has to mean more than that, doesn’t it? The #1 feature of the Nokia Lumia 900 that Microsoft was promoting today was the camera, boasting a Carl Zeiss lens, f/2.2 aperture, and a 22mm focal length. Of course, since those numbers are completely irrelevant to users, they had to demonstrate what they meant, and in order to do it they used a picture of people sitting around a table eating dinner. So clearly, Nokia is following in Apple’s footsteps. When the iPhone 4S was announced, one of the top features that came with it was an even better camera. But does a top notch camera mean you’ll be better connected with people? Maybe, and the Windows software underlying the phone is definitely supposed to help—Microsoft is so sure that it’s the fastest phone for doing simple tasks like sharing pictures on Facebook that they’re running a contest here at #CES when they’ll give you $100 if you can do a task faster on your phone than they can on the Lumia.

The tiles interface of the Windows Phone platform must be another thing they’re talking about, since you can literally add people to your homescreen and then see whenever that specific person has an update from social media. So maybe there’s something to this idea, but with Apple solidly in the lead in terms of App revenue and Android (specifically Samsung) completely dominating in terms of Smartphone marketshare, it remains to be see what place Nokia will be able to carve for itself in the competitive smartphone marketplace.

There’s a lot of info to unpack from the Nokia announcement, and we’re going hands-on with the phone soon, so stay tuned—we’ll get to the bottom of this!