September 5, 2012 at 2:06 pm

Will Nokia’s New Windows Phones Cut the Mustard for Music Fans?

nokia lumia 920 microsoft windows phone music apps

Nokia and Microsoft announced the Lumia 920, which will run Windows Phone 8, at a press event in New York on Wednesday (screenshot courtesy of Nokia; link below).

Smart phone buyers go where the apps are. App developers go where the users are.

This chicken-and-egg cycle is the reason we’re never likely to have a huge variety of computer, smartphone, or any other operating systems for that matter.

Nokia and Microsoft hope there’s room for one more dominant mobile operating system out there, in addition to iOS and Android. Today’s announcement of Nokia’s new line-up of Windows-powered phones (watch it) could be the last, best chance for both companies to gain a foothold in mobile before Apple and Google turn into the Coke and Pepsi of smartphones, with all other contenders being relegated to the lowly status of RC Cola.

I’ve been somewhat of a fan of the Windows Phone operating system since I first held one in my hand. Ask anyone else who has actually used a Windows Phone, and they’ll likely tell you the same thing: The layout is slick, the design is top-notch, and the chassis typically exudes a quality that makes lower-end Android phones feel like the chintzy electronics they are.

However, just because Windows Phone has a pretty face doesn’t mean the Windows Phone 8-powered Nokia 820 and 920 smartphones will succeed in the marketplace — especially when iOS and Android have already snagged so many early- and middle-adopters, who have already been buying apps. And after they buy apps, they’ll want to stick with the same operating system, in order to not throw out potentially hundreds of dollars’ worth of those apps.

Microsoft reportedly plans to launch Windows Phone 8 on October 29, but today’s announcement gives us plenty to go on regarding Nokia’s “hail mary pass” approach to maintaining relevance after being blindsided by Android and iOS (related: Nokia’s stock price dropped 12 percent today).

Let’s take a look at what Nokia’s new Windows Phones (Lumia 820 and Lumia 920) offer music fans, from what we can tell so far:

Wireless charging on speakers

Wireless device charging has been “a thing” for a couple of years now, but usually, it involves buying special hardware. Nokia solved that problem in an ingenious way with the Lumia 920 (and some of the removable shells of the Lumia 820), by including wireless charging inside the device (compatible with the Wireless Power Consortium’s Qi standard).You’ll be able to use JBL speakers as the charger for the phone.

When you come home, you can simply lay your phone atop these speakers to turn it into a stereo system, and have it charge, without connecting a single wire, as the music streams over NFC (near-field connection). Likewise, an NFC connection can zap music to wireless JBL headphones. This is neat, and it’s not possible with iOS or Android, but it’s not enough to make a music fan choose Nokia/Microsoft over iOS or Android.

Music Apps

Several Nokia phones (including the Lumia 820 and 920) will ship with Nokia’s own music app, Nokia Music, which covers the basics: artist-based streaming radio stations, celebrity-curated playlists (both ad-free), a Gig Finder that alerts you to upcoming shows by your favorite bands, and an MP3 store. (The artist radio part is powered by data from The Echo Nest, publisher of Evolver.fm.) So even before you install any third-party apps, you’re in pretty good shape. However, a lot of the fun in the app world comes from the sheer variety of what’s out there — and for variety, you need big numbers.

The Windows Phone platform currently has over 100,000 apps in total, by to Nokia CEO Stephen Elop’s count. He says been growing “three times faster” since Nokia joined the Windows Phone ecosystem 18 months ago, which is good news for both companies. But what’s the reality of the situation, today, as pertains to music apps?

First, there is no “music” section in Windows Phone Marketplace — just music + video. At least Apple and Android give you a dedicated music category, even if they don’t slice them into subcategories. Even then, the offerings are fairly scanty. Our scan of that category today found a preponderance of artist apps, as well as some musicians’ tools and a smattering of instruments. There’s even an app for keeping up with dubstep artists, specifically.

However, the Top section of the music+video section in Windows Phone Marketplace ends after 11 pages. The Free section ends after 10 pages. And the New section ends after just one page. There are no other ways to browse the music+video section, and the search function appears to be on the fritz today. Judging from what we could see, there aren’t many music apps for Windows Phone in the music+video section at all, although some are hiding in the Entertainment section. (We’ll revise this if we figure out another way to count them).

The short story: If your music app needs are fairly standard, you’ll be able to do what you need to do on Windows Phone Marketplace. In addition to the aforementioned Nokia Music app, Spotify, Rdio, and Rhapsody each have Windows Phone apps, for starters. But if you like to explore odd, specialized, or cutting-edge music apps, the way we do, Windows Phone is not for you — either because they don’t exist, or because they’re impossible to find. Windows Phone could get there eventually, but there’s no guarantee (although Steve Ballmer does offer one — see below).

AirPlay?

Every iPhone can send the sound from any music app to AirPlay-enabled speakers, which is a major feature of that operating system as smartphones become the centers of our digital lives. In addition, plenty of decent Android apps exist for zapping music to Apple-powered hardware too (which should worry Google). As for Windows Phone, a search of the Marketplace brought up zero AirPlay apps.

Microsoft XBox does have SmartGlass, which can allow phones to send audio, video, and other data to television sets and sound systems via XBox, but you shouldn’t have to buy an XBox in order to play music on your speakers wirelessly. So far, Nokia’s and Microsoft’s solution for phone-to-speakers music appears to be the wireless charging method mentioned above… but that means you won’t have your phone anymore, and then what good are you?

There is one AirPlay equivalent supported by Nokia’s new phones, from what we can tell so far: Nokia Play To, available at an experimental stage, which can send music to any DLNA-compliant system. Still, if wireless music is your thing, Android and iOS both look to be better bets at this point (unless you already own a Sonos, in which case you can use Phonos).

Live Music

Have you been to a concert lately? If so, you know the people there seem to spend half of their time shooting video, recording audio, and taking photographs of the band as they play. Nokia’s new Lumias boast “the latest Nokia PureView camera for taking the best pictures and videos of any smartphone,” and that claim has merit. We’ll let CNET do the analysis here, for those who want the details, but suffice it to say that PureView will shoot excellent photos and videos in a number of situations, including concerts.

However, if you’re trying to record live music with decent sound, the regular microphone in your smartphone isn’t up to the task. You can buy high-end add-on mics for iOS (like this Tascam iM2) that can record loud music with clarity, but we haven’t seen an Android equivalent that works as easily, let alone something for Windows Phone. If you’re trying to record shows and have the audio sound good, we doubt Nokia’s Lumias will be up to the challenge any time soon.

Non-Music Stuff

Not many music fans would make music features the sole criteria for buying a phone they’re going to live the rest of their lives with, too. With that in mind, here are a few of the non-musical tricks Nokia’s new Windows Phone 8-running Lumia 820 and 920 have up their sleeves:

  • Nokia’s hardware is super pretty and colorful.
  • Nokia City Lens lets you overlay data on the world around you via augmented reality.
  • Nokia Drive, a popular GPS-enabled navigation system, comes standard.
  • From the looks of things, the display on Nokia’s new phones is sharp and vibrant.
  • Nokia SkyDrive stores photos and other data in the cloud (7GB for free).
  • The touchscreen can feel your hand through gloves, which could be nice for music fans who engage in winter outdoor sports.

So far, these phones look impressive — but without a vibrant app ecosystem on the level of iOS or Android, we’re betting people will flock elsewhere.

Nonetheless, Microsoft CEO Steve Ballmer remains confident that “the next app developer to hit it really really big will be on Windows,” that Windows Phone is “the largest single opportunity available for software developers today,” and that “one year from now, between Windows Phones and Windows tablets we should see close to 400 million new devices running those operating systems.”

We’ll see.

Photo screengrabbed from Nokia’s video stream