First Take: PlayNow plus

Sony Ericsson today announced that Omnifone will be powering its new PlayNow plus mobile music service. For Omnifone this is a big catch, and though it leaves Music Station Max looking a little stranded, what is Best Buy’s loss is their gain. For Sony Ericsson PlayNow is quite simply their answer to Nokia’s Comes With Music.

Sony Ericsson is the digital heir to Sony’s Walkman brand (with Sony having all but thrown in the towel in its head on fight with Apple) and had established itself as the preeminent mobile music handset brand. Some of that momentum though has been lost over the last 9 months or so, due in no small part to Nokia’s Xpress Music handsets and the anticipation surrounding CWM. Sony Ericsson will be hoping PlayNow plus helps them reclaim the initiative.

Though essentially the same sort of offering as CWM, PNp has some important differences:

• Like CWM the handset can be bought ‘pre-licensed’ with unlimited access to music downloads for a fixed period. Unlike CWM consumers can opt for 6, 12 or 18 month periods.
• Unlike CWM, consumers can buy non-pre-licensed devices and instead pay weekly or monthly for unlimited access to music (all prices tbd).
• Unlike CWM, pre-licensed handsets come with up to 1,000 preinstalled tracks giving an ‘out of the box’ experience (Nokia take note)
• The biggest difference though is with the usage of DRM. PNp tracks are DRM-ed but users accrue DRM-free tracks at a rate of 100 every 6 months for pre-licensed and (stick with me here) at 10 per month for pay weekly or pay monthly, but they only redeem after six months of subscription, and then you start ‘saving’ for another six months. The app automatically selects which tracks are redeemed based on your most listened to and automatically strips out the DRM tracks and replaces with MP3s. So a somewhat nuanced / complex proposition that will be difficult to communicate elegantly but is actually, once you get your head round it, a decent value proposition i.e. you get 20 DRM-free albums a year which you get to keep for ever and can burn onto CD, play on any device etc. Whereas with CWM you have tracks that only play on your PC and the CWM handset you acquired them on.

PNp will launch initially in Sweden with Telenor on the cool W902 Walkman phone (8 gig of memory) with other launches to follow. Though Nokia is still keeping mum about exactly how well operators will be integrated into the CWM value proposition, PNp gives operators an explicit role with a clearly defined revenue sharing structure. I’d been hearing from some label contacts over the last nine months or so that Sony Ericsson had been positioning their strategy as explicitly inclusive of operators. Though Nokia have made positive noises on this front, there is not the same central focus and there remain strong direct-to-consumer overtones with CWM and the broader Ovi strategy. These may only be nuances, as may be the differences in the consumer proposition, but in this highly complex process of mobile value-chain evolution, nuances can count for everything.