Opinion: Nokia's iTunes rival has to be more than a me-too music service

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stu-mugshot2.jpgStuart Dredge writes…

So, it seems Nokia is about to take the wrappers off its ‘proper’ music download service, according to the well-sourced article in Fortune Magazine that we wrote about earlier. It’s not even a secret that Nokia’s been planning to launch a rival to iTunes: last August, Nokia bought mobile music firm Loudeye, and said at the time that one reason was its intention to launch “a comprehensive music experience to Nokia device owners during 2007”.

Can Nokia really take on the might of Apple’s iTunes Store though? By January this year, Apple had sold over 2.5 billion songs through the store, and is generally assumed to have snaffled an 80% share of the digital music market. Nokia tends to be bullish about every new venture (remember when the original N-Gage was going to take on PSP and DS?), but surely picking a fight with iTunes is a step too far?

Well, maybe not. But if Nokia really intends to become a big player in the digital music world, it can’t just launch an iTunes Lite. It’s got to be brave, take a few risks, and really focus on what us consumers want from a digital music store.

Such as? Well, we want our music to be truly portable. If Nokia’s store is just about selling us tunes to sideload onto our Nokia phone, it’ll flop. They’ll need to be at least able to be played on a PC/Mac, but also burned to CD, or even played on other devices (iPods, MP3 players, PSPs, consoles…).

nokia-music-phone.jpgY’know what that means? Yep, they’ll ideally be DRM-free. iTunes is doing it, and Amazon’s upcoming digital music store will also be DRM-free. That’s what Nokia is competing with, and if its own store isn’t to fade away by this time next year, it needs to follow suit. Of course, the other implication of ditching copy-protection would be that NokiaStore downloads could be played on other manufacturers’ handsets.

A bad thing? Not if the company is serious about digital music, rather than seeing it as just a way to lock people into its phones. By the way, it’s probably not called the NokiaStore, but I’ll use that as shorthand for the moment.

So, DRM-free downloads, what else? You’d expect Nokia to use its key advantage, which is mobility. How will mobile phones interact with the NokiaStore, other than being plugged into a PC to have its files sideloaded onto them?

Could there be an application that sits on the phone and lets you preview tracks while out and about, then cue them up for purchase and download when you get home? It’s just an example, but mobility could be the NokiaStore’s main weapon in its battle with iTunes, which doesn’t even work on an iPhone yet in terms of preview and purchasing.

Pricing is another area where Nokia could steal a march on Apple. For example, what about an eMusic-style monthly subscription where you pay a set amount to get a specific number of downloads? Not only would it help break through the digital music price barrier (see the story earlier today for why high prices are the reason many consumers turn to piracy), but it would encourage users to use up their quota by trying new and unknown artists.

So, there you have it. Ditch DRM, make the most of mobility, and introduce a more innovative pricing model than iTunes. I’m not saying it’ll lead to 2.5 billion downloads overnight, but it’ll give Nokia a fighting chance in the digital music market, and could potentially make it one of the Big Three services alongside iTunes and Amazon, in the future.

Stuart Dredge is editor-in-chief of Tech Digest, and due to buying his wedding reception music on iTunes, is now forever marked on Apple’s database as a hardcore Betty Boo and Wham fan.

Stuart Dredge