March 12, 2003 3:43 PM PST

Mobile music: The sound of silence?

Record label Sony Music Entertainment on Wednesday unveiled a new "mobile music" service for cell phones that's missing something: tunes to download.

Instead, AT&T Wireless mMode subscribers can buy cell phone ring tones based on Sony songs. Customers also get tiny renditions of album covers as screensavers and can have music news e-mailed to their cell phones, said J.J. Rosen, a vice president of Sony Music's mobile products.

U.S. carriers, cash-starved and burdened by billions of dollars in debt, expect downloadable music to create a healthy new revenue source, especially from the teenage market. Entertainment companies agree. On Wednesday, MTV announced it inked a $75 million pact with Motorola to develop a mobile music service for cell phones.

But the initial rollouts of services from Sony, America Online and soon MTV are missing actual music to download, something much more lucrative for carriers than ring tones, which usually sell for about $1 each. And it's not that the technology to download music to phones hasn't been developed; most major carriers sell downloadable games powered by Sun Microsystems' Java or Qualcomm's Binary Runtime Environment for Wireless.

Rosen said poor audio quality on cell phones is the reason Sony, for one, is staying away from selling its artists' songs over the air. Most cell phones don't have enough memory to download an entire song. So it has to be compressed, a process that strips away the same digital elements that give a song "studio" quality, he said. The result is a scratchy, less-than-stellar experience.

"A goal of ours is to deliver that kind of quality experience," Rosen said. "But most of the handsets out today don't have the ability to download and store music files beyond polyphonic ring tones."

MTV's service, which is expected to debut in a few weeks, is similar to what Sony launched on Wednesday. MTV is providing content for screensavers and ring tones. Handset maker Motorola is building a way for MTV to deliver the content to cell phone owners, according to MTV spokesman Mark Levine.

"At the moment, it's just being limited to those things," he said. "As things develop, who knows."

Levine would not reveal which U.S. carriers, if any, would offer the MTV music service once it's ready. A representative for Motorola, which will build phones with some MTV content embedded inside, did not immediately return phone calls for comment.

The Sony Music service for cell phones is available only to mMode subscribers. A subscription is typically between $4 and $12 a month. Sony said its ring tones cost between 99 cents and $1.99.

 

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