Why hasn't Nokia's Comes With Music succeeded in the UK?

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There’s never been a lot of love for Nokia’s Comes With Music service on Tech Digest. Duncan is essentially a DRM Nazi and, as far as I’m concerned, if it’s not free, I don’t want to know about it. But I’m going to give Nokia a break today – well, as best I can. They probably need it after news that just 23,000 CWM subscriptions have been taken up in the UK.

Now, before we write the whole project off as an utter failure, which the UK figures would suggest, it should be noted that CWM is doing a roaring trade over in Singapore where it’s increased the digital music market by 30%. No mean feat. So, what’s the problem in the West? Why don’t we like our music free-ish and DRM heavy over here?

First up we need to look at how the service is being packaged and, right now, you can only get your year’s subscription when you pick up one of three handsets in the UK – the N95, N96 and 5310. In Singapore, and elsewhere, Comes With Music comes with the Nokia Xpress 5800 which we all used to know as the Tube.

The 5800 may not have turned out to be an iPhone killer but CWM would certainly be a lot more attractive when packaged with something as apparently desirable. Perhaps, more to the point, the millions of subscriptions to the service worldwide might have really been by-products of people who wanted to own the 5800 regardless of what kind of media it does or doesn’t come with? But then, I don’t suppose that makes the picture any prettier for Nokia.

I own a Nokia 5310. (It’s something to do with not being able to decide between an iPhone, a G1 and half being on the look out the Pre, Magic and TG01. Don’t ask.) I registered my CWM credentials and therefore would count as one of Nokia’s 23,000 but I can’t say I’ve downloaded a single track.

There’s a small handful of relatively well documented reasons as to why this would be – aside my general laziness which, as it goes, is probably as good a reason as any – and most of them are related to the DRM.

I could link you through to a thousand of my colleague’s quite reasonable, if passionate, rants on the subject of music file freedom, but the fact remains that it’s a pain in the arse to have your music collection split up into those that you can play anywhere and those limited to your PC and phone without so much as CD in sight.

On the mobile side of things, not only do you have to invest in expensive microSD memory sticks to turn your phone into a decent MP3 player but you’re going to be putting a serious drain on battery power which will limit your web surfing and video watching, as well as your bread and butter voice and text services that you bought the thing for in the first place.

On top of that, stick the fact that, generally, the audio quality in phones isn’t necessarily as good as many other dedicated music players. Who cares how much music you have when it sounds rubbish, or perhaps, more to the point, not as good as your dedicated PMP because that’s really what we’re looking at as the key to CWM’s elusive success.

It’s a good service if it can replace your media player but, if can’t, then it’s just an expensive, unnecessary bolt-on. The 5800 is the only Nokia device you might consider leaving you iZune home for and if they’re not offering it with CWM over here, then that’s got to be a serious mistake.

At the other end of things, back at home, the DRM’s still getting you because you’ve got to use the Nokia player for the service to work. I don’t like being strong-armed into my choice of PC music player.

The catalogue is actually superb. Comes With Music has all sorts of Pink Floyd, Metallica, Frankie Goes to Hollywood and 4 million tracks that the mighty Spotify can only dream of at the moment. But Spotify is going to waltz right in and take from under their noses what maybe CWM was always supposed to be, if only the vision had been bolder. Yes, Spotify will still have problems with audio quality on a phone once the mobile service is up and running but it’s not such a big deal when you’re not paying for it.

As it stands, the choice is between costly MP3 downloads, semi-dodgy piracy or a “free” service that you laid out for in the cost of your handset in the first place. All choices make you pay in some way but the CWM option is by far and away the one with the most hassle and without the carrot of a sexy handset. Why would anyone not decide to go with something else plus a PMP instead?

I really didn’t mean to sit here and have a go at Nokia for Comes With Music. I’ve got plenty of love for the Finnish giants but perhaps that’s just the trouble with the service. It’s this fantastic idea utterly crippled by rules and regulations to the point of madness. It just isn’t practical.

No one is asking for a free ride here. I’m not necessarily suggesting they drop the DRM like a stone but give it as a reason to buy the N97 over any other smartphone this summer. Keep that 4 million and counting catalogue three steps ahead of everyone else, make your own Nokia PMP to play video content as well as what you would otherwise carry around and, maybe then, CWM will begin to fly.

The trouble is, that in less than a year the Comes with Music model already looks dated. With Apple making you pay for music but ditching the DRM, and Spotify not letting you own but offering free access, CWM looks like some terrible half-way house hotch potch of the two. All it really adds is a degree of customer confusion and good dollop of inconvenience.

So, in answer to my own question, that’s why Nokia’s Comes With Music hasn’t succeeded over here and why, in its current guise it probably never will, but consider this – perhaps Nokia isn’t interested in how it does over here? Nokia already has some kind of giant market share in both Europe and the Developing World. Maybe it was the East they were after all along? There were queues for the 5800 when it launched in Singapore. Would that have happened for a Nokia phone if it weren’t for the Comes With Music package?

The Majors are based over here. So, you’re going to need presence in the West, and with all the talk we hear about the state of piracy in other parts of the world, perhaps the labels were only too happy to back that kind of gameplan. It’s win-win for all of them.

So, if Operation CWM part A has actually turned up trumps, exactly what is it Nokia that has up their sleeves for world domination?

Daniel Sung