Bloggers’ Talk with Nokia Philippines

1:50 pm PHT

Update: Some things I said on this post are quite inaccurate so I deleted them. It’s been two weeks after all and I didn’t take down notes, but only relied on my recollections. Well, one disadvantage about blogging—that bloggers often acknowledge—is that blog posts usually do not go through editorial processing. As always, take things with a grain of salt.  :)

 Logo of Ovi and Nokia.

A little less than two weeks ago, I and several other bloggers were invited by Nokia Philippines to a discussion over dinner at Sugi in Greenbelt 2. There, Nokia presented the global company’s future direction and solicited fedback and insights from us. Representing Nokia were William Hamilton-Whyte, General Manager, Rhomel Marcojos, head of various marketing stuff, and Nikka Singson-Abes, Corporate Communications Manager. William is actually a quite a fascinating expatriate. He’s Scottish-French, born in Kenya, and has lived in about a dozen countries before taking the country General Manager position for the Philippines’ most successful mobile phone brand.

This talk, Nikka said, is only one of a few such events Nokia Philippines conducted. She says that events like this are more productive since feedback can be gathered and the atmosphere is more intimate than just simply holding a press conference or handing out press releases. I’d like to think that we bloggers provided Nokia with some valuable feedback and insight into Nokia’s future direction. After all, Nokia has developed tons of great phones and all of my GSM cellphones thus far (like the 6610 and 6030) are from Nokia.

During the discussion, I observed from William’s printed slides that there were many topics that they wanted to talk about; but because of limited time and the lively discussion, only three main topics were tackled: maps, music, and games. Maps? Music? Games? Isn’t Nokia a mobile phone company? Well, that was probably true a few years ago, but Nokia is setting its sights high and during its 2008 annual stockholders meeting, Nokia announced that it wants to be a mobile Internet service company—not just a telephone company anymore. This aspect of Nokia’s goal will be centered around Ovi (Finnish for “door”), an umbrella portal to encompass all of Nokia’s service-oriented business.

This move was already seen when Nokia bought Loudeye, an online music distributor, in 2006, acquired Twango, a media sharing company, in 2007, and is currently in the process of buying Navteq, the world’s largest provider of mapping and navigation data (Google, Yahoo! and Microsoft are clients), for $8.1 billion.

Maps and Navteq

It should already be obvious to my regular readers that the topic of maps is the one I was most interested in during the discussion. I brought up the Navteq deal and William confirmed that they want Nokia to be the most ubiquitous location-based service provider and device manufacturer in the world. Nokia phones with GPS receivers with built-in mapping and navigation systems? Now that’s a match made in heaven! In fact, Nokia aims to have 50% of its phone portfolio to have built-in GPS by 2012. I can certainly imagine future scenarios of car navigation systems using plugged-in Nokia phones and people using their phones to get info on nearby restaurants when they visit a new country.

Nokia, by some respects, is the world’s largest mobile device company, and Navteq is the world’s largest mapping data provider. An aquisition deal like the one Nokia and Navteq made (comparable to the Google-DoubleClick deal) would raise some anti-trust eyebrows and so the deal is currently under a review by European regulators. I asked if the acquisition has any problems and Rhomel replied that they don’t see any hitches with the deal pushing through so it’s probably safe to say that it’s as good as done.

You might want to read this O’Reilly Radar blog post or this this article on The Map Room, both from last year, for some pre-2008 speculation on the Navteq acquisition.

Comes With Music

Comes With Music is Nokia’s planned music subscription service (to be launched by the second half of this year) that is unlike Apple iTunes Store. With Comes With Music, you simply buy an enabled Nokia device (no announcements yet on which devices) and you are then free to download an unlimited number of music tracks that you can play on that Nokia device and your PC for one year. Moreover, subscribers get to keep the tracks even after the year is up. The tracks come from the repertoire of Universal Music and Sony BMG (for now), plus the Independent Artists Club, Nokia’s stable of independent music artists.

The main question of the bloggers? DRM. The answers were not really straightforward but it appears that the tracks come with some sort of Microsoft DRM (Hmmm, PlaysForSure?) so that the tracks cannot be played nor transferred (without loss of fidelity or pirate techniques) to other devices or computers.

I personally don’t like DRM (which listener doesn’t?), so it remains to be seen whether Nokia’s unique strategy will work. Given that there are tons of listeners willing to jump into the Apple iTunes-FairPlay cage, there’s certainly a market for DRM-shackled music. But then again, Apple is Apple (just like Anna Dizon is Anna Dizon) and while Nokia is certainly popular, I don’t think Nokia has the same cult-like status Apple enjoys. Also, Universal and Sony BMG only? There goes Madonna, Alanis Morissette, Robbie Williams, and Timbaland. Still, I’ll admit that Comes With Music is compelling, but I’d rather wait for a solution where I can purchase tracks legally for a fair price that supports artists (and not the labels much) and where I can play those tracks on any device I want.

Gaming with N-Gage

I’m not much of a gamer but I can clearly see that Nokia is not making inroads into the gaming industry with their N-Gage phones. It’s hard to wean gamers’ hands off their Sony PSPs and Nintendo DSs, aside from the console Sony PlayStation, Microsoft Xbox 360, and Nintendo Wii. At best Nokia is only cornering the casual gamer market—the play-games-while-waiting-in-airports kind of market.

The thing is, Nokia may have a lot of nice all-in-one mobile phones that lets you place calls, surf the Web, listen to music, and play games, but until Nokia is able to have flagship and highly-marketed game titles (like Nintendo’s Mario and Sega’s Sonic), serious gamers won’t take the N-Gage platform seriously. The bloggers said as much and it’s up to Nokia how they plan to pursue a gaming strategy or if they’ll stick to the casual market.

Other coverage of the Nokia talk: Technograph and Kiven.

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