The Tale of Nokia, Mobile First and Sonic Augmented Reality

At Midem this last weekend Nokia announced the launch of Nokia Music Plus, a premium iteration of its free Nokia Mix Radio offering.  For €3.99 per month subscribers get an enhanced personalized radio service including unlimited track skips, unlimited offline playback and lyrics streaming.  From a pure specifications perspective none of that is particularly groundbreaking, but what is interesting is Nokia’s execution as a truly mobile first music service.

When Mobile First Means Anything But 

Many digital content providers are positioning themselves as being mobile first these days, but the results often suggest they are anything but.  Mobile first does not mean simply having most of your customer engagement happening via mobile, nor does it mean focusing your development costs on mobile, heck it doesn’t even mean only being available on mobile.  None of these factors constitute being mobile first, instead they should be natural outputs of a mobile first approach, success indicators of a mobile first strategy.  Being a mobile first consumer offering, at least if we use the term in a strategically meaningful sense, should be about meeting a consumer’s mobile needs in a uniquely mobile way. One that does not just leverage mobile functionality but instead has it at the core of its DNA.  That creates an experience that is so good on mobile that it would be an inferior experience on a PC.

Too often the mobile apps of music services either:

  • look like little more than a PC screen squashed into a mobile screen
  • repurpose the PC user journey for mobile, splitting it across multiple screens to create a fragmented and disjointed user experience

And When It Really Is

Despite being a mobile company first, Nokia hasn’t always delivered mobile first experiences.  Indeed one of the failings of the much maligned but nonetheless visionary Comes With Music was that it delivered a clumsy and squashed PC experience that masqueraded as a mobile music experience.  But with Mix Radio, Nokia have delivered a truly mobile first experience that sets the bar for others to follow. There is nothing particularly revolutionary in the service, but that misses the point. Nokia have taken the Apple mantra of delivering elegant, seamless user experiences and have run with it.  As the screen shots in figure one show, Mix Radio does not try to cram the screen with metadata and information but instead uses the screen inventory to deliver uncluttered, visually rich content.


I’ve been trying out Mix Radio on a Lumia 920 (which by the way is IMHO Nokia’s best device since the N95 8 Gig.  It is great to see that Nokia has got its hardware mojo back, let’s hope it isn’t too late). On the Lumia 920’s large screen, Mix Radio is a music experience that genuinely feels like a mobile music experience and that does not leave one wanting to switch to a PC screen as soon as is possible.  It isn’t a perfect service, and I am not convinced that the beefed up Music Plus offering will get much traction as a premium offering, but it does set a standard for what a mobile first music experience should be.

Sonic Augmented Reality 

One other feature that Nokia launched on Saturday, but with little or no fan fare, is one of the most fun digital music features I have seen in years: NFC Activated Mixes. The user simply points their phone at one of the NFC targets (see graphic below) and a mix starts playing instantly as soon as the he or she accepts the mix. NFC music is far from a brand new concept but the value of the feature is again all in the execution: point, touch, play.  All in an instant.  And this isn’t just for promoting music, users can use NFC stickers to create their own mixes and leave them anywhere they like.  It is also just as easy to dump a mix onto a sticker as to listen to one – with all the actual music files residing in the cloud so it is only metadata that is being transferred.   And of course, it is again a genuinely mobile first experience.


The opportunities for personal sharing as well as commercial uses are boundless. Cafes could have them at the counter so customers could chose a mix with their coffee. Bars and clubs could have them on their doors to give passing clientele the opportunity to hear what sort of music they can expect inside. (Use cases similar to those, by the way, that Swedish start up TunaSpot has also been working towards with its Spotify / 4 Square API mash-up app).

Though only a small and fun feature, Nokia’s NFC Activated Mixes nonetheless represent the potential of a profound extension of music consumption: making location and context genuine parts of the music experience.  Augmented Reality apps such as Layar have focused, understandably, on augmenting the visual world with mobile context, but this is Sonic Augmented Reality. The next obvious step for music experiences is to then blend sonic and visual elements, but in many ways that will detract from the elegant simplicity of Sonic Augmented Reality. Nokia’s NFC Activated Mixes work because they are quick, simple and non-intrusive.  It is as easy as picking up a free newspaper from the stand at a train station, whereas traditional Augmented Reality apps require a strong degree of consumer involvement.

Nokia are not necessarily reinventing the digital music market – after all they tried that with Comes With Music and got their fingers burnt through to the bone.  But what they are doing is using the already available assets in the digital music landscape to set new standards in mobile first music experiences. Welcome back to the fold Nokia.

How the App Economy Has Transformed Product Strategy

Mobile apps can stake a pretty solid claim to being the single most important shift in consumer product behaviour in the last 5 years.  Sure the devices themselves are pivotally important, but were it not for the apps consumers install on them, they would just be better versions of the feature phones and early smartphones from half a decade earlier.  Apps have transformed consumers’ expectations of what digital experiences should be, and not just on connected devices.  But Apps have also transformed product strategy, in two key ways:

  • Apps have replaced product strategy with feature strategy
  • Apps have created a renaissance in the consumer software market

Apps have replaced product strategy with feature strategy

Though there are a good number of apps which can be genuinely held up as fully fledged products (Google Maps, Angry Birds, WhatsApp etc.) many are in fact product features rather than products.  Shazam for example is a fantastic feature, so fantastic that it should be as ubiquitous in music products as a volume button, but it is nonetheless a feature not a product.  Don’t mistake this for a derogatory critique: indeed feature strategy is virtually the core DNA of the app model.  After all apps rely upon the core product of the smartphone or tablet itself to do much of the hard work.

Apps co-exist with the core functionality of the device in order to layer extra features on top.  Instagram uses a phone’s camera and web functionality, Layar uses the camera and GPS and so forth.  In short, apps add features and functionality to hardware products.  That does not make them inherently any less valuable for doing so, but it does make them dramatically different from pre-App products. Even the majority of utility apps, such as those that track rail and flight schedules, or the weather are at heart browser bookmarks on steroids.  Games are perhaps the only app category which in the main can be considered as self-contained products.

This shift from product strategy to feature strategy has slashed the time it takes for products to get to market and has dramatically reduced development overhead, but it is a model riven with risk.  Consumers and the device ecosystem companies are winners, but many app developers are exposed.  On the one hand they have the insecurity associated with platform dependency, on the other they know that if their features are that good that they will likely be integrated into the device’s core OS or into the featureset of another app with broader functionality.  Sometimes those scenarios will be achieved via favourable commercial avenues (such as an acquisition or licensing) but sometimes it will just be flat out plagiarism.

The lesson for app developers is clear: if your app is a feature and it is good, then you need to plan for how to turn it into a product, else plan for what to do when your app has become someone else’s feature.

Apps have created a renaissance in the consumer software market

It is sometimes easy to lose sight of just what apps are: software.  In the PC age software was for most people one of three things:

  • Microsoft Windows and Office
  • An anti-virus tool
  • A bunch of free-trial bloatware shortcuts preinstalled on their desk top pre point of sale

Mainstream PC behaviour was defined by Microsoft functionality and browser based activity.  Sure, software from the likes of Real Networks and Adobe supported much of those browser based experiences, but they were to the consumer effectively extensions of the core OS rather than software products themselves.  A premium consumer software market did exist but never broke through to mainstream.  Consumers didn’t know where to look for software, whether it would install properly, whether it would work on their PC, and then on top of all this they were faced with having to provide credit card details to small companies they knew nothing about.

Mobile apps changed all of that.  App stores simultaneously fixed the discovery, billing, installation and compatibility issues in one fair swoop.  Apps have enabled the consumer software market to finally reach its true opportunity.  Just in the same way that the iPod allowed digital music to fulfil its potential.

Apps continue to transform consumer behaviour and expectations

So where will feature strategy and the reinvigorated consumer software business take us?  What is clear is that consumers are getting exposed to a wider array of digital experiences and are evolving more sophisticated digital behaviours due to apps.  Apps are also enabling consumers to do things more effectively and efficiently, and are empowering them with more information to make better decisions, whether that be getting the best flight price or choosing the best local plumber.  They are also making consumers expect a lot more from a device’s ecosystem than just the devices.  How often do you see a phone company advertise its handsets with the screen turned off? It is the apps that count.  For now, however good Nokia might be able to make its smartphones it knows that its app catalogue and ecosystem struggles to hold a candle to Apple’s App store and ecosystem (the same of course applies to all other handset manufacturers).

Apps have become velvet handcuffs for connected device owners

But what happens if/when consumers start to shift at scale between ecosystems?  For example, say Apple finds swathes of its iPhone and iPad customers switching to competitors in the future, what sort of backlash will occur when consumers find they have to expensively reassemble their app collections to reconstruct the features they grew used to on their Apple devices?  Perhaps a smart handset manufacturer would consider investing in an app amnesty, giving new customers the equivalents of their iOS apps for free on their new handsets.

For now though, Apple’s market leading app catalogue behaves like velvet handcuffs on its customers and gives it a product strategy grace period, in which it could get away with having a sub-par product generation, with customers staying loyal because of not wanting to lose their App collections.  But not even the strength of Apple’s app catalogue would not enable them to keep hold of disaffected customers much longer than that.  After all, apps are features, not the product itself.