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Radio Free Mobile Phone


By Carlo Longino

"Who wants or needs downloads if you can just stream it whenever you want? Disks are so overrated." Nullsoft cofounder Tom Pepper

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Mobile multimedia is the hot trend on the tradeshow floor at CTIA this week. And of all the forms of multimedia, mobile streaming audio is getting the most action. Having an FM radio built into a handset isn't anything new; but streaming services deliver a much wider range of content and a much higher range of interactivity and personalization than downloadable content.

Sprint's had a lot of announcements in this area in the last few weeks, with services on the way from well-known brands like Sirius and Rhapsody. Some radio stations, like the UK's Virgin, are developing their own custom applications to allow people to listen live over mobile networks. Meanwhile the rise of 3G in Europe sees more and more users listening in on stations' existing Web streams.

The idea of plain old radio, though, is slightly boring. People have grown accustomed to much richer, more personalized music services on the Web, and will expect the same level of functionality when they're mobile. And since phone-cum-MP3 players are limited by a user's music collection, streaming services—by virtue of the network connection—can offer users access to a much wider online library of music.

Existing services like last.fm or Pandora are a perfect fit for mobile—users create a profile of the music they like, then get a personalized stream where they can skip and rate songs to further narrow it down to their tastes. Trouble is, neither of these services is mobile. Pandora says it's headed towards offering its service for phones, while last.fm is also very bullish on the potential.

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Luckily, a couple of other companies are already heading down this path. Mobzilla is launching a similar service for phones next month. For about $6 a month users can get the company's application for their phone, then pick different genres of music they're interested in. The stream, which uses the AAC+ audio format and sounds pretty great even on a GPRS or CDMA 1x network, also lets users rate the songs they hear and further refine the service to their tastes. Rights issues—a bugbear for any company in this space—keep the service from being able to offer users the ability to just pick any particular song they want to listen to at any given moment.

The company's president, Mike Pinto, says the the service has enough flexibility to give it a high degree of personalization, while also allowing users to quickly and easily start listening to music without creating an extensive profile first—an important characteristic when developing mobile content.

"We're getting people who want a snack," Pinto says. Huge music fans that have spent hours filling their iPod probably aren't going to give that up anytime soon," says Pinto. But there's a "huge market of people out there looking for mobile content to fill small amounts of downtime in their daily lives." And Mobzilla seems pretty well suited to that.

A forthcoming version of the service will allow for integration with ringtone and download stores, allowing users to purchase the songs they hear. It will also allow for better personalization, with users able to choose from 65 different genres, and even gives them the ability to weight how much of each genre they hear (such as choosing 75% rock and 25% country).

As compelling as the idea of a mobile phone with a big hard drive for music sounds, streaming services will always have access to a bigger library of music thanks to phones' Internet connections. The personalization they'll offer is very Radio 2.0.—it removes all the things people don't like about standard FM, like annoying DJs and ads, the inability to skip over that Beyonce song you've heard a million times and so on. But the good parts are still there, and are getting even better.

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.