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Nokia music service sneaks out

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Nokia has quietly changed the rules for its Ovi Music Unlimited download offering, dropping the service in 27 of 33 countries served. In another three, including South Africa, it has replaced 12 month subscriptions with 6-month packages. Only three countries will keep the full service. ARTHUR GOLDSTUCK uploads his perspective.

Nokia pulled the plug on its Ovi Music Unlimited service across 27 countries at the end of last year ‚ but only admitted it on this week.

Three countries, namely China, India and Indonesia, get to keep the service, originally launched as Comes With Music. It allows unlimited downloads for a year after buying a Nokia device that includes the Ovi Music Unlimited service. And South Africa is one of a further three countries that get the subscription cut by 50%: along with Brazil and Turkey, customers here will get a six month unlimited music deal with phones that offer the music service.

It revealed the details of the move on its web site on Monday, 17 January 2011, announcing:

‚On December 31 2010, Nokia stopped selling subscriptions to its Ovi Music Unlimited service in some countries, while the service continues in a number of others. Existing customers will have uninterrupted access to the music library until their subscriptions finish, will be able to keep their music downloads forever, and are still able to buy DRM free songs through the huge catalogue on the Ovi Music Store.‚

The reasons it gave for closing down the service will strike both analysts and customers as double-speak (the concept inspired by George Orwell’s novel 1984):

‚This is part of preparations to deliver new, innovative music experiences as part of Ovi during 2011. This comes in response to customer feedback and promises to deliver better, more locally relevant experiences. However, the new deals and other arrangements necessary for this to happen meant that old ones needed to be ended. We’ll release more details on these new services as they are announced.‚

The good news is that there will be no disruption to the existing service for anyone ‚who has an existing subscription, nor for anyone who purchases an Ovi Music Unlimited device from existing stocks‚ .

The Nokia announcement elaborates: ‚If, for example, you bought an Ovi Music Unlimited device last Saturday, you’ll still get full value from the subscription that came with the device.‚

Further good news is that the a-la-carte music store, Ovi Music, is not affected. It also remains free of Digital Rights Management, the copy protection system which prevents the owner of the music from copying it onto multiple devices.

Prior to the announcement on the web site, the changes to the service appeared to have been communicated only to the Reuters news agency, which reported that the service had ‚gained little traction since its 2008 launch‚ .

‚Reasons behind the lacklustre performance include use of older supporting handsets for the product at its launch, digital rights management (DRM) software that tied downloaded music to the device and a difficult to understand product offering.‚

Gadget criticised the use of DRM in both the Unlimited and the paid download service when it was first launched as ‚Comes With Music‚ in South Africa. While the online music store, where music typically cost R8 per track, is DRM-free, the unlimited service still does not allow the user to own the music. DRM means the track can only be copied twice so that, once the devices onto which it has been copied become obsolete, the music dies.

Reuters quoted a Nokia spokesman as saying, “The markets clearly want a DRM-free music service.””

It took Nokia two years to accept such common wisdom but, instead of simply removing DRM, it has pulled the service. This suggests that the service many thought had the potential to be the most viable alternative yet to Apple’s iTunes is still clueless about how to take on the giant.

That said, the Nokia spokesman did add that the firm continues to offer DRM-free tracks through its music store in 38 countries. That is significant for South Africa, where Nokia is the single biggest vendor of digitally downloaded music, according to the International Federation of the Phonographic Industry (IFPI).

Jake Larsen, Head of Music for Nokia Middle East and Africa, told us in a recent interview that ‚Going DRM-free was something we were committed to from when we launched, and with Ovi Music we have now done so.‚

Why did it take more than a year for them to do the obvious?

‚We needed to get all the right deals in place with content owners. We had to negotiate with them ‚ every single one of the four majors and more than 2000 independents. Our catalogue in South Africa has more than 6-million songs. South African music is a large chunk of that: we have one of largest if not the largest local artist contingents available.‚

In South Africa, aside from being DRM-free, the Ovi Store also offers smart search, recommendations, top charts across multiple genres, content tailored to specific local markets, and tracks from soundtracks, compilations and B sides that were not previously on albums or singles.

However, the Ovi Music Unlimited service remained hamstrung by the DRM issue.

‚We’ve been very happy with the uptake,‚ claimed Larsen. ‚South African consumers have responded well. We think the simplified branding (versus the original ‚Comes With Music’ brand) is a very good move. Tracks are DRM-protected so are linked to one PC and one mobile device. There are limitations to DRM to make it work. We still think its good value.‚

He believes that, in the next three to five years, digital music will be ‚device-led‚ . He calls himself a ‚big believer in the music as water theory‚ , the concept first strongly espoused by David Bowie that music would eventually become a utility. Larsen feels the Ovi Unlimited service was a step in that direction, but clearly it was a step too far for Nokia. He is hopeful for the future, though:

‚We will see a lot more bundling happening on mobile devices and, as mobile device improves, it will become a lot easier to use.‚

– Follow Arthur Goldstuck on Twitter on @art2gee

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