Nokia has recently been ramping up the press hype for its Comes With Music campaign, targeting the 15-25 demographic with music, and the magic 'unlimited' word. In a nutshell, a person buys one of the compatible Nokia handsets, and with that receives access to 'unlimited' music for a period of 12/18 months, all at no extra cost. From DMW's coverage;

The store features a library of about 2.1 million tracks, from labels including Universal, Sony BMG and Warner Music. Customers will also be able to keep all of the tracks they download after the year-long period expires. Carphone Warehouse will be the exclusive U.K. pre-pay channel offering the Nokia 5310 XpressMusic 'Comes With Music' edition handset, and started accepting pre-orders today. (September the 2nd, 2008).
Some have touted this as the first real attempt to knudge iTunes from its seemingly-unreachable podium, and I'm all for that. However, there are some small things to realise which make the CWM concept a little less appealing... while Nokia says that you can keep all the music you have downloaded after the 12 month period ends, they're keeping quiet about the caveats. I attended an AIM event recently in London called Music Connected, where representatives from Nokia and a couple of UK mobile networks explained the service in detail.

The service is DRMed. Yep, same old story. Your account is tied to one handset and one PC - Users receive a PIN and with it are given 12 or 18 months' worth of access to music, depending on the package you opt for when you purchase the handset. The service, given my past discussions with Nokia employees at Midem, is most likely going to be coordinated with Nokia's existing Music Store. It is true that the access is 'unlimited' (no doubt subject to a Fair Usage Policy, which imposes arbitrary limits on just how much constitutes 'unlimited' before you're asked nicely to stop downloading).

The kicker in all of this? Well, would you like to burn some of the music you've already paid for to a CD? Oh, well in that case, you have to pay extra for that privilege. That's what they regard it as; a privilege. No matter that in the eyes of the customer, they've already paid good money for this unlimited access, but then to be told they must pay more to burn a track to a CD to listen to - when they've already listened to it many times on their handset - is almost criminal in my opinion. The Curse of Monetisation strikes again. The Register covered this in detail way back in 2007, when the CWM idea was first rolled out into the public arena, and not much has changed since then.

Here's the key problems I have with Comes With Music:
  • You can only use the one PC to synchronise your music collection with
  • ... And to facilitate this restriction, the music is DRMed.
  • Linux isn't supported, and neither is Mac (only XP or Vista with IE6+), making this a bit of a one-sided fight...
  • ... And to burn the music you've already paid for to CD, you have to pay again. Per track.
Now then, this doesn't exactly come across as 'unlimited' to me, more like Unlimited*, with the great big asterisk indicating that in truth, Nokia is trying to flex the meaning of the word to fit its requirements and restrictions, just like how UK ISPs advertise "unlimited 8meg broadband (fair usage limits apply).

El Reg can always be relied on for some sharp analysis, and sums this up quite nicely:
"...In other words, it's a loyalty program for Nokia customers, with music as the bait.
Instead, Nokia conceives of certain usage rights as a value-added extra - including the ability to burn CDs. The thinking is that most people who burn a CD do so for the car, and are prepared to pay. It's a risky strategy, though."

... And go on to say,

"Intriguingly, Nokia is seeking to make a little extra money from this great music giveaway by charging for usage rights. One of those extras is the "right" to burn music to a CD. No fee has been set for this right yet - we're still a long way from launch in the second half of 2008. [the Nokia press launch on the 2nd of October this year will no doubt have full details on the exact cost of burning to CD.]

A few years ago, we thought DRM was a format scam: a way for the music business to get us to buy music we already owned in a different format, like the transition from vinyl to CD. Is it now thinking of charging for usage rights we already have?

Probably not."

Tongue firmly in cheek there. This whole business model goes against the 'inexorable move away from DRM', as The Register puts it - so why persist in DRMing? Oh wait, it's because the majors demanded it, isn't it. (The first major 'on board' was Universal). Unfortunately, I can see Comes With Music taking off in a couple of demographics - one where parents buy handsets for their children because they're worried about the kids otherwise infringing copyright, and the ensuing legal hassle that can sometimes entail.

The other demographic is those who have the cash for a spangly new handset but who don't necessarily budget for spur of the moment music purchases, or who might view CWM more as an added bonus on top of buying the handset rather than the sole means of obtaining all their music for the next year or so.

Unfortunately, Nokia aren't doing themselves any favours - it looks like they've gone with one of their lesser-featured handsets in an effort to boost sales, because the Nokia 5310 XpressMusic handset (and the first Comes With Music handset) is both butt-ugly and not exactly feature-packed either to boot. (picture: see left) A tri-band handset, it only has a 320x240 screen with a 2megapixel camera - and it doesn't even have 3G connectivity (only GPRS, EGPRS and HSCSD). At present, you can't download tracks directly to your handset from the Nokia MusicStore, but if they decided to roll this feature out in the future, it would make downloading music OTA a painful procedure.

<tinfoilhat>(Maybe this is a deliberate choice - a disincentive to stop people from downloading too much music?)

As an aside, Comes With Music is hardly trailblazing when it comes to packaging up a mobile music store for the masses. A company of note is Puretracks, which has had a DRM-free, mobile & desktop 'dual download' solution available through select US mobile carriers for a while now, and they made much noise over the fact that the PureTracks platform is DRM free (in an attempt to corner the Blackberry OTA sales market). A key point to remember is that all Blackberries up to this point (either by accident or by design) do not support any form of DRMed media. This obviously requires any platform provider attempting to offer OTA downloads to either offer a dual-format download, or just adopt a DRM-free format such as MP3 or AAC/AAC+.

Puretracks decided to do the latter - choosing to offer their content as 64kbps AAC+, which sounds remarkably comparable to even a 160kbps MP3 if encoded well, and played back on a device with proper AAC+ support). The choice of AAC+ for OTA downloads was made to save on data charges; if a BlackBerry user is connected via Wifi, they can purchase from the Puretracks Mobile store and download an MP3 if they so choose - so the tradeoff is still only between a DRM-free format or another DRM-free format, which is by far a preferable situation to be in. Why can't other retail platforms follow suit?

Puretracks has had arrangements with Universal, SonyBMG, Warner and EMI (and some indies too) for quite a while, and they all seem perfectly happy to have their music sold in DRM free formats to customers. From this, it quickly becomes glaringly obvious that if a large pre-existing userbase of affluent customers mandates no DRM on audio in order to make a purchase, the major labels are willing to take exception and readily offer their catalogue to retail platform providers to licence. Why can't Nokia take a stand and demand that all its music comes without the shackles of DRM too? Oh wait, because they design all their XpressMusic handsets to explicitly support Windows Media and its DRM format. This isn't necessary in this day and age, and it should not be perpetuated, as it only increases the cost of the handset due to the licensing of the proprietary Windows Media formats - when that money could be spent licensing a quality AAC+ or MP3 codec and focusing on getting sound quality for those formats as high as possible. DRM should not be encouraged, and it should most certainly not be through complacency.

Overall, I can only see the current incarnation of Comes With Music having limited success; until they unwrap the DRM from the music, and stop charging customers (who've already paid once) for the 'right' to burn CD audio, I don't think the majority of people will even bother adopting the service. So, to summarise - well, Nokia, it's a good warm-up attempt, and I applaud you for gradually introducing the market to a proper, mature, quality on-demand music service, but Comes With Music as it exists right now definitely isn't it. Hopefully in 18/24 months' time, you'll be bringing your A Game to the party - until then though, I think I'll skip your promise of unlimited goodness and go buy some CDs and vinyl instead from my local record shop... Y'know, the shops that everybody claims are closing down because people don't buy music offline any more. (The same goes for you, Omnifone; just because you're in cahoots with Vodafone doesn't make it any better - and if I stop paying with you, my music disappears too!)

Oh, and if you're wondering why I still buy physical music, like a dinosaur... Well, I can be sure that I won't be charged more for the privilege of burning them to CD, should I want to make a mixtape or compilation for my car or introduce a friend to an artist they've never heard of. Not needing a PC to grant authorisation for each track to be played is also a big plus point (and once you've tried carrying a computer around with you everywhere you quickly realise how impractical it becomes).


  1. croz´ said...
    From service provider to consumer..."cake and eat it", sounds like...all you can eat!?
    Christopher said...
    Unfortunately I'm sure there's bound to be restrictions and terms of usage, and if people think that the days of both having and eating are finally here, they're going to be rudely awoken to the realities of subsidised music after they start using the CWM service. It's a step in the right direction, but unfortunately they're quite close to the 'one step forward, two steps back' situation if they don't truly make a real effort to provide a service markedly better than its present inaugural incarnation.

    Either way, the CWM business model is fundamentally unsustainable. The reason the industry is tolerating it is because at the moment, they're so desperate to find any model which works for them because they're just ever more desperately clutching at straws right now.

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