digital reporter

Lines get crossed, and Nokia likes it that way

BlackBerrys are a big part of the cellular world, but last week, a raspberry took center stage in a way that will boost the entire digital entertainment industry, not just mobile.

We're talking about the raspberry that the world's biggest cell phone maker, Nokia, blew at its longtime customers — mobile carriers including Verizon Wireless, Vodafone and T-Mobile.

The Finnish handset king jumped into the music downloading business when CEO Olli-Pekka Kallasvuo said in London that the Nokia Music Store will go live this year. He says it will have millions of songs available to phone and PC users who can fetch tunes over airwaves or through broadband lines. It's part of a larger new Web site from Nokia called Ovi (the word means "door" in Finnish) that carries games and should eventually offer video, TV and even films.

The thing is, in the traditional mobile world, selling songs and services is supposed to be the domain of the carriers. That's how the mobile industry works: Nokia provides the phones, Vodafone gets the end-user.

Not anymore.

"This world does not work the way the old world worked,'' Kallasvuo says. He doesn't mean it as a snub. On the surface, he is saying that Nokia has to tap into what he calls "one of the most opportunity-rich markets the world has ever seen" — the Internet.

At least one operator is grumbling; a memo leaked from France Telecom's pan-European carrier Orange expressed concern that a Nokia shop on the same street as an Orange music store could confuse users.

Nokia has long known that moving into services could alienate carriers. About six years ago, it watered down a service called Club Nokia when carriers objected. "They kind of capitulated then, but things have moved on under the stewardship of a new CEO," says Ben Wood, a director with London telecom consultancy CCS Insight.

The digital entertainment industry should thank Nokia. In the mobile arena, despite all the noise about the phone becoming the fourth screen and the portable music player of choice, the singing and dancing has been slow to take off. That's largely because mobile carriers have priced "content" either through the roof or confusingly. End-users often find operators' entertainment services difficult to use. And ask anyone in film, TV, or music, and one hears a collective groan about stinginess and controlling habits.

OK, so Hollywood has a few of those traits too. The bigger picture is that Nokia's daring move loosens operators' grip on the mobile media game by providing a legitimate alternative outlet. With a million of its phones flying off retail shelves a day, Nokia has clout.

We don't know yet whether the service will be any good. We played with a demo both on a phone and on a PC. It wasn't exactly downloading for dummies, but it wasn't bad. It seems to have enough tunes; Nokia says it has millions from the four major labels and from regionals around the world. I searched for Dexter Gordon — not the most popular choice for the typical target audience of these things, yet Nokia offered a selection of 27 albums from the late tenor saxophonist.

And don't underestimate the marketing power of one of the world's best-known brands whose flagship product, the phone, resides in the hands of about a billion people. Nokia phone users can fetch songs straight from the Nokia site, or they can "sideload" songs to the phone after downloading to PCs from Nokia or other shops. Nokia's songs will run on other mobiles too. One day, Nokia will do the same with video.