Monday, September 21, 2009

Mountain Bikes, the Hill2Hill, and Why I Love My Nokia 5800

Yesterday, Sunday 20 September, was the annual Sunday Tribune/Jeep Hill2Hill Mountain Bike Race. The full 100km race is from Hilton, in the KZN midlands to Hillcrest, outside Durban, but for the slightly less fit there is a 43km option starting at Cato Ridge and running the same route through to the finish.

I volunteered to second for my brother on the 43km race, as my own preparation for the race had been hampered by a recent bout of flu. The start at Cato Ridge Golf Club was a chilly 9°C, even at 6:50am when my brother’s group got underway.

OK, so what has this to do with my Nokia 5800? Well, as I prepared to set off to the first spectator point in an area I was unfamiliar with, I activated Garmin Mobile XT application on my phone, which offers full SatNav and turn by turn instructions to keep me on track. I must say that ever since I first experienced SatNav in Japan in 2001, I love the freedom to explore without having to worry about getting lost.

Despite the shortcomings of Nokia Music, the 5800 is a great MP3 player, and connecting it to the car’s sound system allowed me to access all my favourite music from the 8GB memory card, and play it in seamlessly in the background, while still operating the Garmin XT system.

On arrival at the first spectator point I quickly opened Google Latitude’s fantastic S60 application, and was able to easily find my brother’s location in relation to my own, and time his arrival with precision. Great assistance when there were nearly 1,500 entrants streaming past.

While I was waiting, I opened my Twitter account via Snaptu, and was able to send off a couple of Tweets. That’s 4 different applications open simultaneously, and the ability to easily switch between them. Try doing that on an iPhone!

Back to the race. While waiting at the finish for my brother to arrive, the leader of the 100km race, DCM Chrome’s Brandon Stewart, entered the finish arena and took the win in a record time of 3:53, nearly 5 minutes ahead of 2nd place man Ben Melt Swanepoel. An incredible effort, with the winner averaging over 25km/h over some incredibly tough terrain and with over 1,900m of climbing.

My brother came in at a very respectable 3:23 a few minutes later; a great performance for his first competitive MTB race. Next year I hope I’ll be there too.

Thanks for reading.

Wednesday, September 16, 2009

An Interview with Jake Larsen, Head of Nokia Music

I was recently very privileged to have the opportunity to pose a number of questions to Jake Larsen, Head of Music for the Middle East and Africa. This came about as a result of a previous blog post, where I was fairly critical of Nokia Music.

Nokia Music Store

Q: The SA Nokia Music Store was launched on 24 April '09. Now that the initial hype has died down, are visits/download meeting the expectations of Nokia? Do you have figures I can quote?
A: The Nokia Music Store has been received very well in South Africa and we are pleased with both the site visit and download figures. Whilst we do not share sales and traffic information, what is particularly interesting to note is that about a third of all downloads are happening over the air by 3G or wireless LAN.

Q: In SA, what is the split between local and international music on the Nokia Music Store?
A: The catalogue of more than five million songs on the Nokia Music Store is made up of a broad cross section of both local and international tracks from record labels large and small, major and independent. All the majors; Universal, Sony, Emi and Warner are represented as are such notable indie labels as Sheer, African Dope, Next Music and David Gresham. Local content is well supported by local music fans; a great example being Prime Circle who’s single “She Always Gets What She Wants” has been in the top ten for single downloads since the store launched in April 2009.

Q: Many online music stores are now offering DRM-free downloads, most notably iTunes. Why did Nokia launch with DRM, and is there any plan to remove it at a later stage?
A: We are committed to going DRM free with the Nokia Music Store and are talking to the music industry about how we can make this happen.

Q: Additionally, downloads are only offered in the WMA format. Are there any plans to offer the more universally accepted MP3 format?
A: Alternative file formats are currently being explored, but WMA will remain the format for the time being.

Q: Similarly, downloads are being released in 192kbps. This is better than the 128kbps we often see in other Microsoft DRM’d music stores but not quite as good as the 256kbps tracks you can get from iTunes. Are there any plans to offer better quality downloads?
A: The difference in perceivable quality between 192kbps and 256kbps is subjective and one needs to weigh up the balance between file size and audio quality as well as the impact that this has on the cost of the data needed to perform downloads. As mentioned above, alternative file formats are currently being explored, but WMA 192kbps will remain the format for the time being.

Q: I was impressed with the pricing offered - R100 per album is especially good value when compared to +- R160 for a CD. Is this pricing just an introductory 'special'? Will Nokia be able to hold this level of pricing in the longer term?
A: We believe that the pricing of R10 per song and R100 per album represents fantastic value, particularly since the latter is not linked to the number of tracks on an album. There are no current plans to change the pricing on the South African Nokia Music Store.

Q: While the XpressMusic range, especially the 5800, has been pushed quite heavily, there has not been much significant marketing of the Music Store in SA. Are there any plans for more aggressive marketing?
A: We are marketing the Nokia Music Store through various channels on a continuous basis. This includes traditional and online media.

Q: In some countries the "Comes With Music" package is offered with phones like the 5800XM. Why wasn't this strategy adopted for SA?
A: I am happy to let you know that we have just announced Comes With Music for South Africa! The 5130, 5530 and 5630 Comes With Music devices will be in store from the end of September through MTN, Cell C and Nashua Autopage with the 5130 being an MTN exclusive. Comes With Music is a revolutionary new service which provides buyers of Nokia Comes With Music devices unlimited access to the more than 5 000 000 songs on the Nokia Music Store  for 12 months at no cost and allows users to keep all of the music downloaded after the twelve months are up.

Q: The Music Store is only available through the Nokia Music application, or via a mobile app. I understand Nokia's strategy is to control the entire music experience, but many potential users are already quite heavily invested in alternative programmes like iTunes or Windows Media Player, and wouldn't want to switch to another player. Are there any plans to launch general web access?
A: The Nokia Music player is an integral part of the Nokia Music Store experience and acts as a hub for managing you music collection as well as providing an easy and efficient way to transfer music between your pc and device. One can import music from sources other than the Nokia Music Store, such as CDs and music stored on your hard drive, so there is no need to use any other piece of software in order to enjoy your music on device, PC or CD.

Nokia Music

Q: Nokia have entered this particular segment very late, and many people have already aligned themselves to iTunes, Windows Media Player, or one of a dozen alternative players. Currently, Nokia Music is lacking many of the features that consumers now take for granted. The latest release, V1.3, failed to add significantly to the feature set. When can we expect features like filters, auto-playlists, syncing of the play-count and on-phone rating and subsequent syncing to be added?
A: Nokia is the world’s largest manufacturer of digital music players and has operated in the music space for some time now. Our entry into the online retail space was a natural progression in the quest to provide a seamlessly integrated music experience and we are constantly refining the way in which consumers interact with the Nokia Music Store based on research and consumer feedback.

Q: In my experience the Nokia Music player is very slow and cumbersome. For example, there is a frustrating lag when trying to scroll through the library. I currently have a 40GB music library, and I found Nokia Music unusable. Right now there is no way I would switch players. Is this an issue being addressed for subsequent versions?
A: Through the Nokia Music player software, we currently offer the easiest way to load music onto your Nokia device and we aim to develop solutions that offer best in class experiences as the product develops.

Q: The comparison with iTunes is unavoidable. There is a lot of speculation about iTunes 9 at the moment, and the possible introduction of social features. Can you share Nokia's plans for the player going forward?
A: The future of Nokia Music is very exciting! We have just announced Comes With Music and believe it to be the most compelling music offering ever to be introduced in South Africa. Social features are undoubtedly going to be important in the future of music and sharing amongst Comes With Music device owners is an important part of the offering.

Unfortunately, I think Jake has ducked a few of the issues I raised, especially with regard to specific development of the current music player. Most people, when they connect their portable music player (be it a phone or dedicated device) to their PC, are expecting an interface and user experience similar or better than the iPod/iTunes experience. This is not available from Nokia now, and in my personal opinion, this may be the reason Nokia have delayed their Music Store release in the USA.

However, I believe that Nokia have the resources to get it right, and I am confident that Jake's promise of "best in class" will be met. I expect we'll be seeing a number of updates to the Nokia Music player in the coming months, along with corresponding firmware updates for the XpressMusic range of phones (in future to be known as the X Series).

The good news is Nokia are committed to offering DRM free music; some sources saying maybe as early as the end of this year. This may be the other reason the USA launch has been delayed.
I would like to thank Jake Larsen for agreeing to answer my quetions, and to Lauren Marks for facilitating the interview.

Thanks for reading.

Saturday, September 5, 2009

The Moses Mabhida Stadium - Durban Preparing for 2010

Last week I was privileged to have a private tour around the magnificent Moses Mabhida Stadium construction site in Durban.

First, a little background; when Durban put in it's bid for the 2010 World Cup, they wanted a semi-final, but one of the requirements was a 70,000 seat stadium, and the ABSA Stadium, more affectionately known as Kings Park, and the home to the Natal Sharks, didn't meet the FIFA requirements. Nor was it suitable to be upgraded to 70,000.
Thus the Moses Mabhida Stadium was born. Whilst it will only have 54,000 permanent seats, it was designed to be expanded to 70k with temporary stands.

The stadium is a fantastic example of modern engineering, and during the construction phase has won numerous safety awards.

The arch is the key feature of the stadium, and a funicular will carry visitors from the north side of the stadium to a viewing platform at the top of the arch where they can get out and enjoy breathtaking, panoramic views of the city and ocean. The south side will have a 550-step adventure walk.

The current status of the project is that the main structure is in place, and the seating is being installed. The pitch is still to be laid, and as with any construction job, there are still plenty of finishing touches required. However, as you can see from the photographs, you can get a good idea of what the finished product will look like. And I must say it is magnificent.
There have been a lot of detractors to this project; “we already have a stadium”, “the cost has been prohibitive”, and so on. But the stadium, with its huge 106m high arch, has quickly become a landmark on the Durban skyline, and when you enter the stadium for the first time, you’ll forget all that. The giant arch bisects the African sky, and the light is filtered by the suspended roof. It is truly a breathtaking experience, and I can only imagine what it’ll be like on match day, when it’s packed to the rafters with passionate fans.
Well done Durban, and many thanks to Richard from The Official Durban 2010 FIFA World Cup™ Host City Website, and our guide, Sue.

For the full Album of photos, see this link.

Thanks for reading.