nokia-musicToday sees the annual Nokia World conference, which this time round is taking place in Abu Dhabi. The company will be unveiling new devices, including (reportedly) its first tablet and ‘phablet’ hardware.

There’s also going to be some news for the company’s Nokia Music service. It’s expanding geographically with launches in Malaysia, Thailand and Vietnam, following a recent rollout in Indonesia. And it will also be expanding onto new devices – the new Nokia hardware, but also a push into cars.

Music Ally talked to Nokia Entertainments VP Jyrki Rosenburg ahead of the launch, to get more details. First, the new countries: “These are important new countries for us, and with Indonesia it’s quite a significant expansion in the south-east Asia Pacific region for us,” he said.

We definitely feel that we have a strong time-to-market advantage here: an out-of-the-box click-to-play music service that’s free with no ads or registration. That’s something nobody else is offering in those markets at this time, so we think we’ll see a positive response.”

The launch includes the premium Nokia Music+ service, although Rosenberg stressed that it’s the free version that’s the “hero element” of Nokia’s music expansion in south-east Asia. It’s part of an ambitious drive to put Nokia Music and its Mix Radio personal-radio feature into markets where rivals like Pandora and iTunes Radio have yet to launch.

“We have recognised the importance of music for consumers in these markets. South Africa is another example where we’ve been there for several years already, and some of the major players are not there. Places like China and India are very important for us, and we’ve made great progress there. And now we have the music service for our Asha range of devices in Russia too,” said Rosenberg.

“We want to be the leading player in these markets, but that doesn’t mean we are not ambitious in the West as well. We want to be better than the other services: we’ve realised there are markets where we can’t be bigger immediately, but to be better is an immediate target. And when I talk about being better, the criteria I’m using is being more simple to use and more personalised.”

Talking about the expansion to new devices was trickier, given the secrecy around Nokia’s hardware announcements today. It’s safe to assume that Nokia Music will be part of the new tablet, for example, but Rosenberg couldn’t talk about those plans beyond noting that there is already an HTML5 app for Nokia Music+, as well as a Windows 8 client.

Cars represent safer ground: at the recent Frankfurt Motor Show, Nokia showed its music service working in dashboards through a collaboration with the HERE division of the company.

“We got really good feedback and interest from the car manufacturers for that,” said Rosenberg. “Music is the biggest and most important use case in the car: I would argue that people spend more time listening to music while driving than they do using navigation services. Yet the FM radio has not really evolved for however many tens of years.”

Like Pandora and others, Nokia sees personal radio as increasingly the most appealing form of digital music for in-car use, as drivers look for ways to play music without having to dig through playlists or catalogues.

“You want to click play and hope to get a mix that fits your personality, taste, profile and possibly your mood and the context you’re in, like the Monday-morning rush hour,” he said. “We have made our service even more simple for cars – the tiles are bigger and there’s less choices to make – but when you give less choices, that’s when the requirement for personalisation increases. 90% of people just want to just click ‘play’ and get a great mix of music that they love.”

More nosy questions: how is Nokia Music+ doing? It launched in January as a €3.99-a-month premium tier for Nokia Music, with features including the ability to download an unlimited number of ‘mixes’ for offline listening; unlimited track skips on personal radio stations; higher-quality audio when streaming over Wi-Fi; and support for non-Nokia devices via the HTML5 app.

Has it been popular? “It is a tricky one to answer when I can’t give you numbers from the free service or the paid service. It’s a bit abstract!” says Rosenberg. “We do see it as an important element in our offering, and we do know that people want unlimited offline channels. But our free offering is very competitive too.”

No numbers on the free service means it’s hard to say how that’s doing, but we do have stats for sales of the Lumia Windows Phone smartphones that Nokia Music is preloaded on.  Between the first Lumia’s launch in late 2011 and the end of June 2013, Nokia sold 27.3m Lumia handsets, and there is speculation this week that another 8m may have been sold in the third quarter of this year, taking that total past 35m.

Earlier this year, Rosenberg told Music Ally that “If we talk activation rates – how many people who bought a Lumia activate the service – that number is very big. The great majority of users activate it,” which indicates that Nokia Music has been tried by tens of millions of people now, even if the active-user count remains a mystery.

The question now, though, is what happens to Nokia Music when the devices and services part of Nokia is acquired by Microsoft. The deal is expected to go through early next year, and with Microsoft having its own Xbox Music service, it’s a fair question to wonder whether that’s bad news for Nokia Music in the long term.

All I would say is that if you look at what they’ve done and what we’ve done carefully, there are some very complementary activities going on, and very little overlap,” said Rosenberg.

“You can also look at the collaborations we’ve had so far, like the Nokia Mix Party with Microsoft on Xbox and Internet Explorer. That’s an example of joint innovation we’ve had in the past already. But before the deal closes it’s not appropriate to say more or speculate on future innovation.”