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Push Pause On The Mobile Music Revolution


By Carlo Longino

The launch of the Motorola ROKR was hyped as a seminal moment for music and mobile phones. While there had been plenty of handsets before that could play music files, the combination of Apple, the iPod and a mobile phone was too enticing to resist.

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Then Motorola unveiled the phone, held everybody's attention for about 10 minutes, then lost it to the iPod nano. And rightly so, really. There's been plenty written here and elsewhere about the ROKR's shortcomings, so we won't dwell on that. But one of the most common complaints about the phone—its rather arbitrary 100-song limit—is illustrative of the conflicts that promise to keep mobile music a niche application for the time being.

The ROKR is limited to 100 songs, apparently, so that it won't cannibalize iPod sales. It's a short-sighted restriction designed solely to protect Apple's interests—it doesn't really help Motorola, and it certainly doesn't do anything for people that buy the phone expecting it to live up to the iPod's reputation. The quality of the device itself takes a back seat to a company trying to put its interests above everybody else's, even the consumer's. These sorts of decisions are par for the course in the mobile industry, usually perpetrated by wireless carriers who have turned the phrase "show me the money" from an annoying movie tagline into a business model.

Carriers care about handsets only as vehicles to sell other services, whether it's a monthly voice plan, music downloads or the kitchen sink. So until they can set up a way to make owners of music phones spend more money, the devices will largely stay in the background. The carriers don't care about helping you carry around one less device; they see music phones just as a way to create another revenue stream.

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"The carriers don't want to create a phone that's a great music player that doesn't drive some other form of revenue," says Mark Donovan, senior analyst at wireless research firm M:Metrics.

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Perhaps this partly explains why the ROKR is so disappointing. Operators don't really care how good it is as a music player—since users just download tracks from iTunes and move them over to the phone, the carrier's not making any money out of it. The only potential benefit, then, is that they might attract some new users and sell some phones based just on the iTunes compatibility. But if it's not driving any additional revenue for them, they're not going to want to subsidize it very heavily, so it's got to be cheap on its own. This could explain why Motorola went with a retooled version of a year-old handset, rather than putting iTunes in a RAZR.

For a long while, carriers had the idea that the only music people listened to on their phones would be music they'd bought from the carrier's download service. Any consumer, of course, recognizes that this is a stupid idea. Who would want to give up their entire music library, and who wants to have music they could only listen to on their mobile phone?

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This conflict is furthermore set against the backdrop of record labels that want to drive up the standard $1 per download price consumers have accepted. Carriers don't have a problem with this, since they see the idea that people can download music from anywhere, not just when they're in front of their computer, as something for which they can charge a premium. But the idea that somebody would go through a cumbersome process on their phone to pay more for a download with more restrictions just so they can listen to it right away, rather than wait and download it on a computer then sync it to a portable device is pretty questionable.

"When I think about how people browse or buy music from iTunes or a similar service, I have a hard time seeing that being a great experience on a mobile phone," Donovan says. "If as I'm doing that, the big payoff is that I get to pay twice as much for the music as I could on my PC, that just doesn't add up to me as something that's going to be more than a novelty for quite a while."

The end result of this is most mobile carriers sitting on the fence when it comes to combining music and mobile phones. They're happy to push the streaming services they sell, but often end up playing a little fast and loose when it comes to people listening to their own music on phones. At worst, they disable the file-transfer or music playback functionality of the devices, and and best, they do what they can to de-emphasize the fact that it's actually possible.

"In the United States, just about everybody with a mobile phone has an Internet-connected PC, and in many ways, that's where their hub is, in the entertainment space, for things like a music collection," Donovan says. "So somehow trying to turn the mobile phone into an island is not a strategy that's going to work."

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But, things are changing, and for all its faults, the iTunes phone might yet have some importance as a tool to induce competition, if nothing else. Verizon, for instance (which has a history of disabling certain Bluetooth functionality on some phones), released the LG VX8100—which can play MP3s and has music controls on its front—back in July, but only made the music-playback software available the day before the ROKR's release. And Sony Ericsson's W800, the first model in its Walkman range of music phones, is available in the US directly from the manufacturer—but isn't being sold by any carriers.

In the meantime, users are generally left to figure out how to play music on their mobile phones on their own. It's straightforward on some devices from some carriers, but requires some workarounds on many others. Until it's as easy for Joe Public to listen to music on a phone as it is on an iPod, the standalone MP3 player is safe.

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"Companies like Nokia and Motorola know how to create great devices," Donovan says. "But creating the great consumer-acceptable music experience that also has a business model with margin in it for the labels and the carriers—that's much more difficult."

Carlo Longino is a writer and analyst that follows the mobile industry. He's co-editor of MobHappy, and also an analyst for Techdirt. He can be reached at carlo@mobhappy.com.