It sounds like an offer no true music lover in Arabia can refuse: Buy a very capable touch screen smartphone from Nokia and get access to an all-you-can-eat music library of 4 million tracks for free for 12 months. And you get to keep the music you download for ever too.
That, in a nutshell, is what Nokia is trying to do with the X6 and its groundbreaking Comes with Music service.

It’s a brilliant idea. Think about it. Arab consumers are still new to buying stuff online. Music piracy is the norm. Music sales, even on CDs or tapes was never really a lucrative business. Many people don’t have credit cards and other payment methods are hard to implement.

Nokia’s answer: create the Arab region’s biggest music store. Stock it with millions of tracks (of both Western and Arabic music) and make a deal with the music companies that ultimately bypasses payment mechanisms and piracy by making the access to the music simply part of buying a phone. And Arabs love new phones. Great!

The more geeky of us might point out that all this music is copy protected and can only be played on the phone and one designated PC. But does the average young person care? Most young consumers play their music on their phones anyway. If they have their music library on their laptops as well, that pretty much cover their needs.

So how does this work in practice. For the past two months I’ve been living with a Nokia X6 review unit and I had the chance to test the Comes with Music service. The minute the phone landed on my desk I activated the Nokia music store account. After a bit of poking around the various OVI interfaces I had access to my millions of tracks. I immediately downloaded a couple of albums over wifi and everything worked fine.

Browsing and buying music on the X6 relatively small screen is the best of experiences. And given the rather unfriendly nature of the mobile interface (more about that later) I decided to try the service on a computer, using the Nokia music player application (their equivalent of iTunes).

Being a Mac user with an ancient PowerBook which doesn’t run windows, I had to go use my kids’ Mac Mini in Windows mode to install the Nokia music player. There, it was easier to browse and buy music. And I can tell you this: faced with an all-you-can-eat music store sent me on a crazy downloading spree. Now, I am not a Nancy Agram, Tamer Husni or even Fairouz fan. So I bypassed all the Arabic music selection (which I understand is the largest around) and went straight to my rather obscure musical interests, downloading one album after the other of Kraftwerk and even exploring music by Tangerine Dream and the likes. Amazing.

So the music store part of this deal is very interesting. I still have my misgivings regarding the DRM protection. But I sort of accept it as part of this all-you-can-eat deal.

But what about the phone? Would the X6 be my phone of choice? Sadly, my answer is a no.

A wooden spoon

I was somewhat excited about the phone knowing it is Nokia’s first capacitive touchscreen device (which means you don’t need to use your fingernails or a stylus to use it). The X6 also has a decent 5 Megpixel camera. But in the end it is Symbian and Nokia apparent total disregard for user-friendliness and usability which drags this device down to the ground.

Much has been written about Symbian lately. Even Anssi Vanjoki, Nokia’s new mobile division chief had to admit that Symbian has problems. I mean when someone like Ricky Cadden, the self proclaimed symbian guru turns his back on the platform and goes Android, then there’s no doubt that Nokia’s position has been greatly compromised.

At every touchpoint of the device experience, Symbian has let me down. Almost everything about Symbian is clunky. The way it manages WiFi and cellular data connection, the way it installs apps, the way you configure email, the way you use the browser, everything seems incoherent and difficult. The interface of the OVI store and services doesn’t help either. And Nokia’s desktop software has exactly the same problems.

It’s a shame really. The last Nokia device to excite me was the N900 running Nokia’s Maemo OS. Now that Nokia decided to merge its platform efforts with that of Intel to produce the MeeGo platform, even Maemo’s excitement has dissipated as Nokia’s fans await the new creation. And that at time when Apple marches from one success to the other, Android gaining strength with amazingly powerful devices and Blackberry still growing all over the world.

I know that the X6 is not a “flagship” device for Nokia. But even my wife’s three year old first generation iPhone has a better user experience (including the music buying experience).

Nokia as a company is now the anti-Apple. Nokia places a massive emphasis on being locally relevant. It has brought GPS mapping to the Middle East. It created the first amazing music store in the region and even figured out a way to bring it to this difficult market. Apple just sit in California and don’t give a damn about this region. You can’t even buy music from the iTunes music store with a Jordanian credit card for example (you can only buy apps). But Nokia is also the anti-Apple when it come to user experience. Three years into the iPhone age and Nokia still can’t produce a smooth experience. It’s actually hard to believe.

Personally, I will not continue using Symbian. I will go for an iPhone4 or an Android phone as soon as I can. But if you’re a hardcore music fan and don’t care so much about Symbian’s user experience, then the X6 and the Comes with Music service is worth exploring.

Nokia has promised to come out with more devices that include its comes with music service. On the horizon is also the new symbian^3 which will run the Nokia N8. So we will continue to see incremental improvements in Nokia’s devices. But the company has to come up with something profoundly more interesting if it wants to stay in the smartphone game, increasingly dominated by Apple, HTC, Google, Blackberry and co.