Nokia's Music Store is a mixed bag

The Nokia Music Store launched recently in South Africa and it was generally pretty well received. I attended the launch event at the Piatto Unplugged at the Cedar Square Mall in Fourways. I posted my thoughts in real-time on FriendFeed which turned out to be a pretty effective way to post updates and keep them all in one location. A number of people were tweeting about the launch and, subsequently, the store and its pros and cons on Twitter too using #NMS_ZA.

A little bit about the Nokia Music Store

The event began with a pretty early breakfast and a few quick discussions with Nokia SA’s execs who were there for the launch. I had an opportunity to chat to Jake Larsen, Nokia’s Head of Music for the Middle East and Africa. Nokia released a couple videos in its press pack and one of them was a video of Larsen explaining how the service works. You can watch the videos on Ovi or using this interface:

The store itself has a very clean look. I found it to be pretty user-friendly when I played around with it and watched other people playing around with it at the launch. I have used the mobile version on my E71 and that was a pretty good experience too, especially considering the mobile format. I think users who access the service through their phones will be pleasantly surprised. It was pretty easy to create my account, load credit (I received R200 credit from Nokia as part of my press pack) and buy songs. I haven’t heard the new U2 album so I bought that album with my credits. As Nokia has advertised, the album cost R100. The one thing I didn’t see was a way to download the whole album in one go. Instead I downloaded a single track to try it out on my phone. I see from the Nokia Music Store Twitter account that the tracks are being released in 192kbps. This is better than the 128kbps we often see in other Microsoft DRM’d music stores but not quite as good as the 256kbps tracks you can get from iTunes (the formats are different too and that also has an impact as I understand it).

The process of buying songs from the store using a mobile phone is slick. Using a mobile device to buy music from the store certainly shouldn’t be too much of a hassle and I can see this fast becoming a preferred method of accessing the store. I also understand from Nokia that, subject to restrictions imposed by the music industry, songs can be transferred a number of times so music bought from the store using a mobile phone should be transferrable to a PC and vice versa. Take into account the growing number of phones with a standard headphone jack and it isn’t difficult to see how this service could shake up the local music sales market.

Thoughts about the Nokia Music Store

You have probably read that the music store is really only available through compatible Nokia phones and Windows computers running Internet Explorer and Windows Media player. The music you can buy from the music store is also restricted using Microsoft DRM (hence the need for IE and Windows Media Player). These are limitations which effectively render the store inaccessible to a number of potential customers who want to have more freedom with the music they buy online. If you try access the music store using any other operating system and/or browser, this is what you will see:

I asked Jake when people who are not using IE on Windows machines will be able to access the music store. He told me that Nokia is working on Firefox compatibility and we should see more cross platform compatibility in due course. I’ve expressed concern about Nokia’s fixation on Windows as its platform of choice and while it may make sense where resources are limited and a choice must be made which platform to support, Nokia’s commitment to open source just seems to run contrary to its approach to its applications and access to the music store. Larsen and Nokia SA’s general manager, Mathia Nalappan have both told me that Nokia expects to be DRM-free later this year but I can’t help wondering why Nokia didn’t start with a DRM-free store, especially considering that going DRM-free is hardly a new trend.

The iTunes Store (technically not available here in SA but many have found a workaround and are buying music and content from the iTunes Store daily) now sells all its music DRM-free and at a relatively high bitrate. Nokia is not a small player and it is disappointing that it found itself unable to provide a less restrictive offering. By the way, Duncan McLeod wrote a pretty interesting article, as did Simon Dingle, about DRM and its unintended consequences, worth reading. I agree with Duncan and Simon and have long believed that the only thing DRM really achieves is incentivise a number of otherwise law abiding consumers to become pirates because they music they want to buy online simply isn’t being made available to them on reasonable terms. While you’re at it, be sure to read Vincent Hofmann’s post too. Vincent and I had a good chat about the service at the launch.

The main reason I haven’t ditched my Nokia E71 and ended over a decade of Nokia loyalty in favour of an iPhone is that this overly restrictive tactic does not appear to be indicative of Nokia’s approach to software and content. It has stated over and over that it is committed to open source and to going DRM-free. The decision to open a DRM’d music store was likely more a compromise made necessary by a short-sighted and protectionist music industry. While I’d like to think Nokia would have enough pull in the marketplace to force the music industry to abandon its demands for DRM, the realities on the ground may well have been very different. Two of the other videos I linked to above and which you can access through the widget I embedded discuss the challenges facing a music store like this and present views from Sony, one of the content contributors. There is a fair amount of fluff in the videos but I do believe people like Larsen when they talk about their commitment to going DRM free later this year.

This leads me to another realisation that I had at the launch event. A number of Nokia execs I have had the opportunity to speak to recently have talked about Nokia’s shift towards services from pure products. I am beginning to see Nokia more as a services platform company than a phone and communications gear manufacturer. Sure they produce great devices and those devices are among the most popular in the world (despite what US pundits have to say about the iPhone’s popularity). It would surprise me to learn that Nokia’s leadership long ago determined that its devices would serve as a valuable distribution channel for a content and software business in the form of the soon to be launched Ovi Store and the Nokia Music Store. In other words, while Apple got into the iPod business through its iTunes Music Store, Nokia is getting into the music and content business in the form of the Nokia Music Store through its established device user-base. The result is pretty similar: a business built, in part, on a rich, well designed music store that is available on a device in your pocket or, most likely, on your desk.

There have been rumours about the iTunes Store opening here more fully (at the moment the official SA iTunes Store sells iPhone/iPod Touch applications) at some point in the future. I am not holding my breath for that although it will be nice if/when it does arrive. Despite my reservations about the Nokia Music Store as it currently stands, it is a windfall for the majority of its users who do/will use Windows and Internet Explorer/Windows Media Player. It is also the answer to a great many prayers for a legal download option at a reasonable price. R10 per song and R100 per album is a pretty good deal in a market where CDs cost north of R150 on average. Nokia is also taking South Africa seriously enough to make it the 16th (or thereabouts) location the store is opening in. There are about 22 regional iTunes stores at the moment and South Africa isn’t on the list just yet. If the Nokia Music Store was accessible to me as a Mac user running iTunes, Firefox and Safari I’d be planning how much I could spend there each month on legal music downloads rather than trying to make do with less popular or less legitimate alternatives. After all, like many people who get their music online, I do want to pay for my music and I want to download music legally. All I need is an opportunity to do that.

Here is the thread on FriendFeed (this is an experiment for me, hope it works).

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