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Nokia taps the Wisdom of Experts

Collective intelligence?

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Analysis Nokia is defying the conventional wisdom of Silicon Valley with its new music service. And that's probably the coolest thing about it.

The phone giant's Music Recommenders service, as we reported here, uses 40 well known independent record stores to nominate their favourite new releases.

That's going to count for a lot more than the expensively-recruited 'Godfather' for the service, David Bowie. Bowie will share his choices each month in a video directed by Wim Wenders.

As my colleague Chris Williams points out, there's hardly a digital music service over the years that hasn't featured the ubiquitous crooner. The name "David Bowie" must be pre-printed on the digital music press releases. And he doesn't exactly bring the Midas touch along with him.

Peer recommendations will continue to play their part, as they do on Amazon, Nokia's Mark Squires told us today. But it's the influence of the independent stores that's the key differentiator in a music market crammed with lookalikes.

New York's Fat Beats, London's Chicago's Reckless, and Tokyo's Mona Records are amongst the tipsters.

Before you can say "Jack Black", it's true that not every store employs staff who want to recommend anything - that's a pretty standard way of emphasising exclusivity. But the good ones know their stuff and are happy to share it.

These are strange times when employing people who know what they're talking about is considered newsworthy.

Recently we covered the launch of Crowdstorm - a buzzword-heavy shopping recommendation site that places its faith entirely on user generated content. Silicon Valley VCs are showering start-ups like Crowdstorm - who find the right trigger buzzwords, such as "collective intelligence" - with money.

Yahoo! is spending a seven-figure sum promoting its "social search" Answers service - money it could have invested more wisely, if the results are anything to go by.

Jaron Lanier, the virtual reality pioneer and tech culture commentator, called the mania for groupwork "digital maoism".

When Apple launched the iTunes Store three years ago, one reader memorably compared it to "an airport kiosk without the cigarettes and chewing gum". It made a huge difference to the perception of digital music, as Apple had all the pieces lined up - the device, the synchronisation, the software jukebox - and iPod sales soared despite as a result. But it didn't look like a place to spend very long browsing, which is why most iPod owners have only around 20 purchased songs on their iPods.

But Nokia is betting that dabbling might be enough. The way the company sees it, too few of the 90m "music players" it's going to sell this year get enough use as music players.

Today iTunes makes only a slim profit, and its rivals are awash with red ink. Napster is seeking a buyer, and even with its backhaul business, Nokia's new Loudeye acquisition - the basis for Recommenders - lost $3.5m on revenue of $5.4m in its most recent quarter (Loudeye provides the music store for O2, which should make negotiations with Nokia's customers, the operators, more interesting).

Apple's success comes from selling hardware. Nokia has plenty of that to offer, and is hoping the Recommenders store will get people into the habit of using their phones for playing music.

There's been plenty of reasons not to, so far: poor synchronization, poor integration with the software jukeboxes, and in Nokia's case, the dreaded Pop-Port. The new music range goes quite some way to improving these remedies.

DRM remains much more of a nuisance on mobiles, but the emphasis is getting the songs onto your home PC, then sync'ing them to your phone.

Nokia promises more music initiatives to come. ®

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