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Nokia's free music offer isn't so free

Comes With Music comes with indies - and a price

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Omnifone's rival MusicStation offering is also unlimited - but the idea is that instead of "free," it's two quid a week. For this, you can chat and exchange playlists with other subscribers, grab music over the air, and crucially, you're not tied to any particular handset or manufacturer. It's won widespread praise for its user interface, and as an instant gratification "personal radio on demand," people love it. Having used it, I can quite see why.

People paid astronomical amounts for SMS once, because it offered such value. The legal P2P file-sharing services - coming soon to the UK - are also making the same bet: people will pay for something of great value. Just make sure it's insanely great. Research tentatively offers some encouragement.

Now Omnifone is spreading its wings a little. Significantly, Sony Ericsson became the first OEM to bundle a white-label version of MusicStation under the name PlayNow Plus last week - and unlike Nokia, it's actually got the operators on board, doing what Nokia wished they'd do for ComesWithMusic and put their hands in their pockets. Well, one operator at least: Sweden's Telenor will bundle MusicStation at no cost for the first six months. Sony Ericsson also won a concession on how much music you can keep at the end.

Omnifone's Rob Lewis welcomed the Nokia move in a prepared statement.

"The music lover... will be able to expect unlimited music downloads as a fundamental part of their everyday mobile experience," he said. Both Nokia and Omnifone both have that part of the proposition right. However, only one of them looks like a real business. And the problem is the ideology of "free."

People don't simply value free stuff that they know should come at a price. The fatal missing chapter of Freetardonomics (and its semi-respectable cousin, "Two Sided Business Models") is that as punters, we just don't respect stuff that's given away - and we don't really respect the people who give it away either. We'll graze and move onto the next chump with a "free" offer. By contrast, we expect far higher standards of service from something we've paid money for. And persuading punters to pay for something they value is what reaps lasting loyalty for a service company or manufacturer.

That's a lesson from another age of marketing, and one that Nokia in its rush to embrace the Californian Web 2.0 snake oil merchants, seems to have forgotten.

All this can be remedied by turning Comes With Music into an attractive music subscription service, dropping the false "free" claim that makes it look like a bit of swindle (when it shouldn't), and gently showing the consultants the door. The only question is not if Nokia adds a modest price tag, but when - and turns it into a real business proposition. ®

Build a business case: developing custom apps

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