Get ready to stream

It's more or less official: music is the hot topic of 2007. So said a majority of panelists at a 3GSM session on mobile entertainment last February when asked their opinion on the hot topics of the moment. Granted, one of them was from music label EMI, but there you go.

The buzz on mobile music goes back at least as far as the iPod, but with every major manufacturer now toting its own family of music phones, and mobile music download services up and running in a growing number of markets - digital music service Soundbuzz says mobile music downloads already outnumber PC downloads - 2007 is looking like the year mobile music will really light a fire.

What about DRM‾

If only it wasn't for the whole DRM thing. And the fact that you really need 3G to even consider downloading full tracks (as well as the fact that 3G is still a minority audience in most markets). Which may be why the vast majority of music you'll find on any given digital music device is ripped from a purchased CD and sideloaded.

Such factors don't seem to trouble the optimists much - at another 3GSM panel on mobile music, DRM didn't come up until someone in the audience (okay, it was me) asked about it (answer: no DRM, no mobile music). But even the most optimistic projections don't peg 3G as a majority service until sometime next decade. And even if DRM interoperability is resolved by the end of this year, consumer activist groups remain suspicious of DRM, arguing that it's mostly proprietary, ties users to a device or its operating system (i.e. Windows or Mac), or makes 'sharing' tracks with friends a pay-for-play affair, in which your friend has to pay for the track you just Bluetoothed to her before she can play it.

Meanwhile, cellcos keen to offer music services without the hassles of bandwidth and piracy fears have another option: audio streaming.

Take PCCW Mobile's MOOV on Mobile service, launched in December. Essentially a mobile version of its existing online music service of the same name, MOOV offers 4,000 minutes of music streaming from its music library, along with 100 minutes of airtime, for a monthly fee.

Users can construct their own playlists on the Moov Web site from 60,000 tracks (mostly local Cantopop artists) from 20 different labels and then access the same playlist via mobile. There are also eight preset playlists that refresh every 15 minutes.

Moov also throws a little Web 2.0 action into the mix by letting fans form communities and swap playlists with friends (provided all their friends subscribe to MOOV, of course).

Streaming audio as a mobile music format isn't new - mobile operators in Europe and the US have been doing it since 2004 - but it's an approach that's got some advantages over the full-track download model. For a start, it doesn't rely on 3G-level bandwidth, which means a much broader potential market of users to tap. Streaming also doesn't require massive storage capacity on the handset.

It also does an end-run around the DRM issue, since streaming is little different from customized satellite radio: users are listening, not downloading.

 

Whether users would rather own MP3s than rent a music library like MOOV remains to be seen. That said, according to a report in the South China Morning Post in January, Cantopop heartthrob Leo Ku generated 800,000 streams in six months on the MOOV service.

Meanwhile, mainland China - where 3G is still on hold - looks set to be the next big streaming mobile music playground. In late December, Chinese digital music service 5Fad signed a partnership contract with BrainMedia to launch a mobile version of its streaming music service. And, in a possible sign of things to come, in January EMI Music announced a partnership with search engine portal Baidu.com to launch a free online music streaming service supported by ads. The deal doesn't include mobile, but Baidu has mobile ambitions - it's already struck a deal with Nokia to have its icon pre-installed on phones in China for its mobile services - and if fans go for ad-backed music, taking that model mobile could change the ball game.

John C. Tanner Global technology editor ([email protected])

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