Mobile music still clings to DRM

It's a mobile music free-for-all in Hong Kong. SmarTone-Vodafone is the latest to enter the mobile music sweepstakes, with its new MusicXS service. The pitch is simple enough: unlimited downloads for a flat fee. Users can download tracks either to their PC or mobile phone for HK$96 ($12) a month, or download to PCs only for HK$56 a month.

MusicXS is up against three other mobile music download services - CSL's Music Channel, PCCW mobile's Moov and 3 Hong Kong's MusicStation. Of the lot, MusicStation is the closest competitor to MusicXS in terms of business models - all-you-can-eat downloads for a flat rate. CSL's service uses the iTunes-style per-track download charging system, while Moov is a straight subscription-based streaming service - kind of like a programmable internet radio service with tons of local content.

MusicXS and MusicStation have one other thing in common - DRM. And that's a problem.
In fact, it's somewhat astonishing, given that every major music label has - albeit grudgingly - admitted that DRM, which is supposed to limit digital music piracy via software locks that prevent music filed from being copied or transferred to other devices, may not be what their customers want.

That said, the music industry still tends to send out mixed messages on DRM and digital piracy. All of the Big Four now offer DRM-free versions of tracks via big-name online music vendors like iTunes and Amazon.com - for a higher price, of course, although you do get higher bit-rate quality for your trouble.

Yet industry organizations like the IFPI and the RIAA continue to denounce users who swap files as thieving freeloaders who are killing music, and sue the bejeezus out of them, seemingly uninterested in the negative publicity and ill will they're generating in the process.

In the case of Hong Kong, some music execs have argued that the level of both disc piracy and file sharing in Asia justify keeping DRM policies firmly in place. The problem with this logic is that it assumes users are naturally sympathetic to such concerns, or don't mind buying music with limitations attached.

For example, I entered a SmarTone-Vodafone shop recently to hear the MusicXS pitch, and the salesperson explained how I could download tracks to my PC or mobile. I asked him if I could transfer tracks to my phone or iPod if I selected the PC-only service. He said no, because the DRM ties the track to the device. I could transfer tracks from PC to mobile with the combined service, but I could only listen to the tracks on those two devices. And if I change my phone (as most people in HK do every year or so)‾

Some restrictions apply

He didn't really have an answer to that.

To be fair, POS staff aren't always trained to handle detailed questioning, and I haven't yet contacted SmarTone-Vodafone for an official reply. But imagine the average mobile consumer being asked to sign up for a mobile music service and being told the same thing.

The sideloading restriction is also a potential problem. Most people sideload music because direct mobile downloads are too slow compared to fixed broadband.

 

I trialed the MusicStation service a couple of months ago, and while the interface and navigation are all right, the download speeds - over five minutes per track, longer if I tried to download several at once - just weren't cutting it.

Sure, that's a temporary problem, and I can think of all sorts of temporary network-related issues to explain such things. But most users don't care about bandwidth management or peak hours. And most will compare the experience to fixed-line whether cellcos want them to or not.

Coming back to DRM, it's too early to say whether it will play a factor in the success or failure of mobile music in Hong Kong. It is worth noting that CSL recently began offering DRM-free tracks, while Moov, being a streaming service, has been untroubled by DRM from Day 1. It will be interesting to see which of them fares better in the mobile music game in the next 12 months.

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