April 2, 2007 4:00 AM PDT
Apple's long shadow over mobile music
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Sony Ericsson, which has already been selling its Sony Walkman phones in the U.S. through AT&T, introduced its latest addition to the music playing family of phones this week. The W580 is a slider phone that the company claims can offer up to 30 hours of music playing time. Sony Ericsson didn't provide pricing information, and it hasn't announced which carrier will sell the phone. But given the company's relationship with AT&T, it's likely the phone will appear there first.
Then, of course, there is the iPhone, which, despite its absence at CTIA, still created a buzz. AT&T's COO Randall Stephenson said during a speech at the convention that 1 million people had already signed up on the Web asking for more information about the iPhone.
While new music-playing phones should spur excitement among consumers, there are still issues that need to be worked out. One of the major hurdles will be making sure people can buy and transfer music easily onto their wireless devices. The ability to download music over the air is seen as a crucial piece of this puzzle--and it's something the iPhone can't do.
"Isn't the whole point of putting music on a wireless device so you can download tracks over the air?" asked Sky Dayton, CEO of Helio. "I think that is a glaring omission in terms of the iPhone. It's great for side loading, but the lack of over-the-air downloading will be a huge disappointment to people."
Right now, Sprint, Verizon Wireless and Helio offer their own music stores with over-the-air downloads. Sprint announced this week that it has reduced the price of songs sold this way from $2.49 a song to 99 cents a song. Meanwhile, AT&T does not yet offer over-the-air downloads. This means subscribers use their PCs to purchase individual songs or access subscription services like Napster; then they can sync their phones to the PC to load the music onto their devices.
But Cross of Sony Ericsson said the industry is not quite ready for over-the-air downloads, because today songs purchased over a cellular network can be used only on specific handsets. The limitation is due in large part to the fact that mobile operators use different digital rights management technology to distribute copyrighted songs.
"The song is only playable on your phone," she said. "You can't transfer it to another MP3 device or burn it onto a CD. So the music has very limited use. And I don't think that is what consumers want."
Operators have tried to get around this limitation by sending copies of songs to subscribers' PCs. But Cross said the industry needs to rally around some sort of DRM standard so there is interoperability among devices. Until that happens, she doesn't believe mobile music will live up to its fullest potential.
"Over-the air downloading isn't nirvana, but it's necessary to grow the market," she said. "And today when people download music on their laptops, they expect to reuse it on other devices. As an industry, we have to be careful about educating people what they can and can't do with their music or risk disappointing them."
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