Nokia Comes With Music: Thanks For The Tracks, Now Give Us A Real Mobile Experience

There’s no denying customers get quite a gift with Nokia’s (NYSE: NOK) 12 months of unlimited downloads, which launched in the UK four days ago – but unnecessary complexity and over-reliance on the desktop PC, at least from one of two debut handsets, make for a less-than-satisfactory, less-than-mobile offering.

The XpressMusic 5310 is no smartphone; in every way the same mass-market S40 talker ‘n texter that was released a year ago (a basic candybar with three music keys), but with two important additions – a Comes With Music wrapper sheathed hastily around the standard box and an enclosed voucher bearing an activation PIN that, when redeemed in the Nokia Music Store, which already existed, renders downloads from there free for a year.

I intended to test the service in the natural habitat of the target market – a Saturday afternoon in the shopping mall – but was disappointed to find the low-specced handset can’t access Nokia Music Store by itself, making over-the-air downloads an impossibility. No, all music must be downloaded instead via the Nokia Music app, a serviceable iTunes clone that requires installation from CD but which runs on Windows PCs only, then transferred to the phone via USB. Despite Comes With Music only being released last week, already the CD demands both Nokia and Microsoft (NSDQ: MSFT) software updates from the net. Fortunately, my MacBook was able to install and run the app under Windows emulation – unfortunately, when it came to redeeming that code, the effort got stuck in a loop. I repeated the process on a spare PC, created a Nokia Music account and this time could successfully enter the code to my year of music…

“Comes with music” suggests the handset offers music downloads right out of the box – far from it. The necessity to own a computer, a Windows computer, to add software to that computer, to register with the service on that computer, and to use that computer to transfer music to the handset… it all constitutes too much separation from what many will expect to be a mobile experience. While Vodafone’s (NYSE: VOD) MusicStation supports over-the-air downloads out of the box and needs no computer connection, Comes With Music on a 5310 is more like an old iPod, promoting the desktop as the music hub and demanding the device be tethered to a machine via a cable – the wrong way around for a modern mobile service, and archaic when you consider iPod touch and iPhone nowadays offer wireless iTunes Store over WiFi. Whatever happened to “mobile music”?

Tethered to the desk: The other debut device in whose box Nokia is putting the Comes With Music voucher – the higher-specced, mid-range N95 8Gbdoes support over-the-air Music Store access; the Nseries has done for a long time before Comes With Music. But it’ll still require PC activation, and the 5310’s mainstream target market – some of which may not even own a computer – may well see each of these steps as a barrier. On the other hand, many in this segment may already be accustomed to PC cable transfer – because they already own an iPod. So the real question is: can Nokia’s free celestial jukebox trump iTunes’ per-track prices? In today’s consumer economic climate, who’d argue against a “yes”, at least from those keen to stick with legal services… ?

Simple player app: Once you’re inside, the Nokia Music player isn’t quite iTunes but the principles are the same – right down to album covers, playlists and smart playlists – and it’s a fairly easy-to-use imitation. It’s a media player in its own right, but it’s with Nokia Music that you’ll also drag and drop tunes, old and new, from your library to your handset. Reminscent of RealPlayers of old, it will ask to take control of all your PC’s music duties and can import songs from across your disc or from an iTunes library. Switching a long-term media player relationship is never easy, but at least tracks downloaded from Nokia Music Store can be played in anything supporting Windows Media DRM. Lucky Nseries owners with all-you-can-eat data plans will be spending far less time in the desktop client but, while my own N95 visited the Music Store website without problem, the experience came without Comes With Music’s free downloads, because the scheme’s activation PIN is matched to the handset with which it shipped. Another DRM issue: though Nokia initially said a further “burning license” would be required for transfers to CD, turns out customers have to buy the track again – even if they’ve already downloaded for free through Comes With Music – to put their tunes on a disc. Indeed, downloads can be played only on your specific handset and PC so don’t expect to transfer songs to another media player.

A step-change in music store downloads: Nokia Music is built very much with downloading in mind, featuring an integrated store that opens to a homepage promoting current charts, new albums, bestsellers and archive classics, much like iTunes Store. One nice feature, however – no prices. The liberation is palpable from being able to freeload music as easily as P2P… nay, even easier; all that meta data, album covers and genre-ific organization is sorely lacking from Bit Torrent and Gnutella. The change in habit that comes with unlimited free downloads is evident from the first use. Grab a dozen albums that would otherwise cost £8 ($14), convert your CD collection to digital without the tedium of ripping… you’ll immediately want to guzzle down as much as possible before that year runs out, regardless of device concerns.

The mobile playing experience: Using music on the 5310 feels certainly like playing music on a phone – despite the hard music keys, you’ll mostly use the D-pad and regular handset buttons for playing, pausing and skipping, at least whilst in the Symbian S40 music player. Like most mobile music efforts, there’s a propensity toward menus, but their number are minimized, really serve to help users see songs by artist, album, genre and playlist, and take the backseat when in track view. One area the 5310 trumps iPod – you can create playlists right on the handset; suddenly, tracklist selection is something that can happen out on the town rather than something that must be prepared in advance on the desktop before a sync. When you do sync, playlists can be transferred between phone and PC, however. The phone comes with a standard headphone jack and, whether through the bundled headphones or the integrated speaker, audio quality is surprisingly full and excellent – and sounds especially good when your current track didn’t cost a penny. Device quality doesn’t hold across the board, however – so tight is the phone’s USB connector, the handset’s protective flap broke off after just four tries. Oh, and it’s hard to remove the SIM without snapping it, at least on a new model.

All in all, Nokia’s free all-you-can-eat offer, just like its emerging counterparts, portends a radical new shift in music consumption habits. Downloaders will feel unencumbered by either financial considerations or the pangs of legal guilt that go with P2P. But two technical considerations may deduct marks for Comes With Music – the strange over-reliance on PC centrality, at least for the 5310 handset, threatens to undermine the mobility of the offering; and the restrictive DRM, that shows there’s no such thing as a totally free lunch, means customers must be certain about buying in to an ongoing Nokia music relationship, since they won’t have ultimate discretion over their tunes.

I’m confident that mobile downloading will come more to the fore in the N95, the upcoming 5800 touchscreen and all the models succeeding the limited 5310, which, given its connectivity shortcomings, is a strange choice for the Comes With Music launch. And it may be that the ultimate promise of free tunes can lure enough mainstreamers away from iTunes and its ilk to lock in a hefty new user base. P2P freeloaders? They’re another question altogether…