James Cridland: Nokia and Sony push their own music services at Mobile World Congress

James Cridland is a radio futurologist, lives at james.cridland.net, and will be speaking about mobile apps at RAIN Summit West in Las Vegas.

k0aa8yvp9q0c2z6ndygxAt the Mobile World Congress in Barcelona this year, one of the most interesting things to me was the prominence that radio got.

No, not FM radio — more of which later — but the radio and music services run by the mobile phone companies.

The truth is that algorithmic jukeboxes (marketed to consumers as “radio”) are all relatively similar. Sure, Pandora contains some carefully curated Music Genome Project data to produce theirs. Other companies use The Echo Nest’s algorithmic technology, or even Fraunhofer’s magic audio fingerprinting stuff, to do the same job. Any of these systems will do a passable, and refinable, job of playing me more of the music I love, and less of the music I don’t. The game is less about competence and more about distribution these days.

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The Nokia X at Mobile World Congress

So, it was interesting, on a flying visit to the exhibition halls, to see Nokia promote their MixRadio service heavily. “Ask me about MixRadio!” the brightly coloured badges stated, as exhausted Nokia employees tried to herd people away from asking awkward questions about the Nokia X, their new low-cost smartphone running a version of Android (including MixRadio already built-in). Nokia’s MixRadio is put together in Bristol, England, you might be interested in knowing; it apparently has nicely-programmed theme channels as well as a-la-carte music streaming. Not having a Nokia phone, I wouldn’t know.

Sony, too, were keen to promote their music service on the new Xperia range. Forlorn product managers waved hopelessly at their super new mobile phones and tablets, as people ignored them to look at Sony’s new 4K screens – oblivious that this is a mobile trade show, and the TV screens were really only put there as a bit of pointless bling; much like the network operator who decided to park a matt-black Mercedes-Benz on their stand.

Samsung probably had a music service to show off as well. Their massive stand, bereft of flash cars or 4K screens, oddly gave over an entire section to some security feature which probably encrypted something important for corporate users or something. A Samsung man spotted me walking past, and tried to make me interested. He failed; I was more interested in the large K-pop collection on some of the consumer devices.

These music services do represent a threat for the likes of Pandora, Slacker and others. Nokia et al can pre-install their music service on literally millions of handsets, global music licences willing. Nokia’s range of cheap smartphones, like the Nokia X or the Nokia Asha, represent a walled garden that they can control: they don’t use standard apps, and therefore Nokia’s own music services will always get the upper hand. They may well be the only music service on those devices; and, while the phones appeal to poorer countries, they could certainly deliver significant usage. With at least three operating systems to support on Nokia phones alone, it would be hard and expensive for anyone else to produce apps for all of these platforms; much less get them pre-installed. And there’s no guarantee that Nokia won’t do the same for the more expensive phones they sell to us in Europe or the US.

What was also interesting was the FM support in these mobile phones. The cheaper the phone is, the more likely it is to have FM built-in. All the Nokia phones had it; Firefox OS also had FM radio as well, saying it was one of the most requested features by their Latin American customers. To the Sony staff’s surprise, Sony also had FM radio in all their new Xperia phones and tablets. “I didn’t know you could do that,” said one Sony person, before hurriedly cleaning the screen to allow me to take a quick snapshot, and politely declining me the chance to quiz them on camera.

However you look at it, it would seem that music services face an uncertain future; if they become too popular, handset companies may well believe that they could do that themselves. And they could be right.

James Cridland