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Tuesday, April 28, 2009

Tech Tuesday: Nokia Music.. oh dear.

I had two options lined up for today's post: navigating on the N96 or a review of the all-in-wonder, have-to-have application Shozu. Well, Nokia still haven't sorted out my mapping license, so no joy there (had a jol on the weekend with Geocache Navigator though). As luck would have it I'm having trouble at the moment with Shozu too, and I didn't want to blog on the app until I got those issues sorted out.

As a poor substitute, Nokia Music launched in SA over the weekend and I can give my initial impressions on that. To put it bluntly, I'm not at all impressed. I was seriously looking forward to the service, as I'm keen to find a site I can easily and legitimately buy digital music from, and doing this direct to my phone would have been perfect. As it turns out, I'll have to keep waiting for that one great service.

The bad
The first glaring failure (in my eyes) is that Nokia have opted for WMV as a format, and DRM crippled WMV at that. Their PC client does give the option of burning bought music to CD, which can of course then be ripped back to a DRM-free format, but that really shouldn't be necessary. Even iTunes is finally freeing it's users of the shackles of DRM, so surely a new service like this should be DRM-free?
Second up is that their 'mobile optimized' site weighs in at a hefty 250kb per page. In other words, on typical SA out-of-bundle data rates of R2/meg, browse four mobile pages on and you've already spent R2, with no music to show for it. Granted, sensible users would be using a data bundle (contract or once-off) to download music but besides the bandwidth cost issue, these pages are also (unsurprisingly) very sluggish. This makes browsing for music tedious even in 3G reception areas. The search feature isn't that effective either, I gave up after a couple of attempts, and will try again when I have some time on my home WiFi network instead.
The PC client looked like it might have some promise, but sadly I've been unable to get it to connect to the Nokia store through our proxy due to a lack of proxy configuration options. It's quite possible our firewall is the problem, but no information is provided for dealing with that, so this is another one that will have to wait for a go on my home network. This is hardly surprising, since Nokia's other software (such as Map Loader) also tends to struggle on corporate networks.
At this stage the mobile and PC interfaces to the store have been serious barriers to use and purchasing, so I have yet to actually buy any music from the service. Price-wise, Nokia have settled on R10 per song and R100 per album. This isn't bad, if one considers the price of CDs these days, but I was really hoping to see a price around the R7-R8 per song mark.

The good
So with all these negative points, surely Nokia must have got something right? It's a small plus, but I have to say I'm impressed with how locally focused what I saw of the store was. It's refreshing to see a multinational like Nokia paying such careful attention to what is locally relevant.
The PC client also has a pretty decent (and obviously iTunes inspired) music player component which seems to have good support for locating similar music in the store (unfortunately grayed out because I was disconnected).Default filters include the expected artist, album and genre, and search functionality is available as well Music can be transferred between the local library, a connected phone and user created playlists. It's mini player could do with some attention to make is more 'mini', but for most users it should get the job done. Nokia would definitely do well to replace the music player in PC Suite with this application sooner rather than later.

In summary
Perhaps when I have tried the mobile site on a WiFi network and the PC client on a more open network my view of the service will be improved, but considering the majority of users are likely to access the services as I did - using GPRS for the mobile site and their work PCs for the desktop client - that really shouldn't be necessary. This is one service I believe Nokia will have to give some serious attention to before it really is ready for- and relevant to- the SA market.

[Update: 28/05/2009]

I have since managed to browse the store using the PC client through the firewall (by setting the music store site as trusted in IE settings) and it seems to be a really great source of music, even some of the obscure stuff I struggle to find in physical format locally. Again the focus on localized content is quite strong (I had to chuckle at the "Double Idols Winners" banner) and Nokia are obviously making an effort to keep content locally relevant. Sadly it's not possible to stream the sample clips or download purchased songs behind the firewall, as it's impossible to provide proxy credentials to the app.

With Telkom and Webafrica finally sorting out my home ADSL this week I had another go at the mobile version of the site over my home WiFi network. While the large pages still keep the overall service fairly sluggish, I no longer had the dissconnect issues I experienced over 3G and managed to download some music. The downloads themselves are also a bit slow (internationally hosted?) but once the music was downloaded I definitely couldn't fault the sound quality. Despite the speed issues I'm sure I'll be using the service to buy more music.. particularly once Nokia removes the DRM as they have committed to doing later this year.

Nokia Music SA has been quite active on Twitter as @NMS_ZA and I managed to get an email from them I could send feedback and questions to. I posed questions about the large size of their mobile pages and the inability to stream or download audio behind a proxy requiring authentication, my email to them follows:

First of all, thanks for getting back to me on my queries. Also, my apologies for publicly replying with the issues, NMS_ZA isn't following me on Twitter so I can't direct message you.
The two issues I wanted to bring to the development team's attention are:
1. Music store mobile page sizes
This is obviously a site designed to be accessed on a mobile platform, on which people typically pay a premium for bandwidth. I understand the ideal is that it be accessed over WiFi, but the market reality is that most customers will be using a GPRS/3G connection without a data bundle, meaning their bandwidth could be costing them up to R2 per megabyte. As it currently stands, music store pages weigh in at a hefty 250kb or more (the landing page is almost 300kb). In other words, before even buying and downloading any music, just browsing 3-4 pages of the store could cost the user R2. This also makes the pages quite slow over a (non-3G) GPRS connection, slower browsing = fewer sales.
By way of comparison, here are some other mobile optimized sites which include images and some of their typical page sizes: 10kb 11kb 13kb 9kb
2. PC Application does not include proxy authentication settings
The PC application currently does not allow the user to specify proxy settings, most importantly proxy login details. There is an obscure workaround for users to actually browse the store by adding the music store as a trusted site in Internet Explorer settings, but this does not affect actual downloads. As a result, neither previewing music nor actually downloading music from the store works if the user accesses the internet through a proxy, a VERY common setup for corporate workers. The ideal may be that users access your site from a home PC without these complications (and indeed Nokia support's suggested fix is to do just that), but the reality is many will try it at work, fail, and never look at the store again, costing you sales. Consider the number of individuals accessing social networking sites such as Facebook from work and you will realize there is huge potential for sales to bored office workers.
It's worth noting that this is a common problem with a number of Nokia PC applications. The Nokia Software Updater and Nokia Map Downloader applications both fail to work when accessing the internet through a proxy server and thus are useless for individuals that would use them at work in a corporate environment.
For reference, the error received when trying to download a purchased music track (observed by hovering over the "X" in the current downloads queue) is: "The remote server returned an error: (407) Proxy Authentication Required".
I really am excited about the Nokia store in South Africa, I happily use my N96 as my primary music device when not at home and will welcome the ability to buy my music directly in a digital format (especially once the store goes DRM-free). I hope you'll seriously consider correcting the above issues to make the experience more pleasant for myself and other Nokia users.

They got back to me today on these issues, and I’m sorry to say the impression I got wasn’t that they really have any intention of improving on these issues:

Hi Matt

I got the feedback from our technical guys at NMS_ZA and below are the responses to your queries - I am not sure that the answers are exactly what you wanted, but this is where we are and how our service runs

1. In order to offer the richest and nearest to "full web" experience on mobile as possible, it is neccesary for the pages to be of the size that they are as they include rich content, imagery and security features.

2. Nokia Music Store uses the Internet Explorer proxy settings. The suggestion is that the user confiigures the Internet Explorer proxy connection and points it to the right server. This can be done by opening an internet explorer session, then doing the following: Goto--> Tools-->Internet Options--> Connection--->LAN Settings---> tick "Manual Proxy" and enter the settings.

I’ll leave it up to my response to them why I don’t feel these are acceptable answers, note that the attachment referred to is simply a screenshot of my IE/Windows proxy settings which point to our office proxy server (and which, of course, don’t specify login credentials):

Hi Tania,
Thanks very much for getting back to me, I hope you don't mind but I intend to post this response (and my answer) on my blog?
1. I'm afraid that answer doesn't make sense to me based on past experience. I use numerous internet services on my mobile, including those that require high security (mobile banking) and those with a lot of media (social networking) and a combination of the two ( mdeia [yeah..oops] content and secure payment). I would understand if pages were reasonably larger (maybe double or triple the size) but almost 20 times larger than the worst case mentioned below seems really extreme.
2. As illustrated in the attached screenshot, I have manually set my proxy in windows Internet Settings. The problem is that this proxy requires authentication, and windows does not provide a means to permanently specify these credentials. When browsing (through IE, Firefox) a user is prompted for these credentials, which can then be remembered for future sessions. I assume Nokia Music is using the native IE engine for basic browsing, and as such that works fine once the user has authenticated through IE, but downloading and streaming use some other (obviously secure) mechanism which does not allow for the user's credentials. Other applications get around this by allowing a user to specify proxy credentials which are then passed through to the proxy by the application.
I look forward to further feedback.

I can only hope they do come back with something positive in response.



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