If you’ve taken a turn through the Web’s gadget sites in the last couple of days you can hardly be blamed for wondering what makes the third week of February prime time for taking the wraps off new mobile phones. No, Mr. Valentine is not the patron saint of sentimental greeting cards, chocolate, and handheld communication devices. Rather, the preponderance of cell phone announcements spring from this year’s 3GSM World Congress, the telecom industry’s annual tradeshow, held this week in Cannes.
The theme of this show appears to be “convergence lite.” Contrast this to a couple of years ago when cell phone manufacturers promised that the mobile phone would be the convergence device, replacing your PDA, digital camera, video player, CD player, and three-speed blender. Granted, cell phones as workaday wonders have made some inroads. It’s no coincidence, for example, that Palm’s fortunes have declined since cell phones began storing contacts and events. On the other hand, at present, few digital camera manufacturers are threatened by the grainy images produced by today’s phones (though phones capable of taking higher resolution images are on the way) and Hollywood is hardly losing sleep over the idea of someone watching a movie on a 2” by 1.5” screen.
This year’s 3GSM focuses on more attainable goals, and high on that list is bringing digital music to mobile phones. Apple and Motorola were the first to team up in this regard and their commitment will bear fruit in the fourth quarter of this year in the form of the
Motorola E1060, a 3G cell phone that features a 1.3 megapixel camera, two-way video calling, video playback, and a mobile version of the iTunes music player. According to Motorola, the E1060 supports the MPEG4, WMV/WMA and MP3 media formats—the protected AAC format used by Apple’s iTunes Music Store is conspicuously absent from the list of supported formats.
A recent announcement by Sony looks like a “me too” move. Next month Sony Ericsson Mobile Communications will unveil a Walkman-branded phone that plays music in MP3 and Apple’s AAC formats and downloads digital music from Sony’s Connect online music store. The fact that Sony plans to support common audio file formats indicates that it learned a valuable (though expensive) lesson from its poorly received digital Walkman devices that natively supported only Sony’s proprietary ATRAC encoding scheme.
Interesting as Sony’s plans are, a deal recently struck between Nokia and Microsoft will have far greater impact on the future of digital music. Last August, Nokia partnered with
Loudeye Corporation to create a mobile music platform for streaming and downloading music to mobile phones and Windows PCs. Such a scheme allows consumers to download music without being tethered to a computer.
With a distribution plan well under way, Nokia then put aside past differences with Microsoft and forged a deal where Microsoft’s music player software will be put on Nokia’s phones. In exchange, Microsoft will add support for AAC files to its Windows Media Player, thus allowing it to play music downloaded to Nokia’s phones and, possibly, music encoded with Apple’s iTunes (though no one has suggested that files purchased from the iTunes Music Store will work on either a Nokia phone or future versions of Windows Media Player).
This move should be of interest to Steve Jobs and Company as Microsoft/Nokia have embarked on a journey yet to be undertaken by Apple—mobile music distribution. The Apple/Motorola deal puts Apple’s technology on mobile phones but, as far as I know, its method of moving music from Point A to Point B is no different than the iTunes Music Store/iPod formula—a formula that requires a computer, Internet connection, and a physical connection between the player and the computer.
Apple hardly needs to wave the white flag or scramble to put together an ill-conceived alliance to be part of mobile music’s future. Life is pretty sweet when you own the digital music market. But Nokia and Microsoft’s actions mean that any plans to create an iTunes On The Road service should be firmed up sooner rather than later. It would be a shame if Apple’s mobile music aspirations were converged to second-banana status.