FEATURE: Mobile music phones have arrived

Mobile music phones have arrived. Now I can throw out my MP3 player, right? Not quite, says HeyAnita's Mark Willingham.

Lucky for the world, ardent inventors insist on thinking outside the box. Without such folks, we might still be living without the helmet to carry two beers, the baby cage, the lie detector shirt, the scalp massaging insomniac helmet, the bug zapper hat and--just so that one doesn't lose such head covers--the hat tether.

Of course, other quite rational inventions well this side of wacky often have proved that a great distance can separate the possible from the desirable. Useful as an idea may appear, excellent design and great marketing cannot always ensure the public's willingness to pay for and use cool new products and services. There is always the matter of how people really behave.

The long-awaited mobile phone/digital music player may bump up against this immutable factor. It is being hailed as the answer to our music prayers and projected by many to become the music player of choice: one player for every need. But how do music and mobile communications lovers really behave?

Few can doubt that MP3 is here to stay. iPods and other MP3 players appear ubiquitous. Humanity has somewhat suddenly become ensconced in headphones. Many of us have become accustomed to downloading audio files, converting our CD collections into MP3 format, compiling considerable online music libraries on our PCs and regularly uploading these files onto our small music device, which we carry in a pocket along with our even more popular mobile phones.

In the spirit of convenience, the next logical and seemingly inevitable step would be to converge these two portable, audio-oriented devices, the MP3 player and the cell phone. This feat is already being accomplished, as we have seen in recent deployments. However, the technologically possible never guarantees major success. Marketplace success of technically possible products and services depends more heavily upon how the model fits into real-life user behavior and needs.

The mobile communications industry need not look very far back in history to see how true this is. Some of the industry's best and brightest believed that camera phones would drive next-generation mobile service adoption and produce enormous carrier revenues. However, while many consumers have spent real money on camera phones and produced revenues for the handset manufacturers, this spending has not generated the anticipated mobile data traffic required to produce mobile carrier revenues.

For many mobile carriers, camera phones have in fact drained funds: the carriers have subsidized the cost of the phones in order to drive consumer adoption, yet few consumers actually use the phones to send reams of pictures to family and friends. Even with adequate picture quality, we just aren't inclined to snap images and send them to our best friends on a daily basis. And, if we were so inclined, they wouldn't be our best friends for long. Market need, in this case, has largely overruled what is possible.

Such lessons may well apply to convergence of the portable phone and music player. Assuming there is adequate memory in such a device to eliminate the need to have both a mobile music phone and a stand-alone iPod (a not yet proven technical possibility), will this new mobile music phone meet the needs of practical use case scenarios? My own personal habits throw doubt on the answer. I play my iPod through my computer at work, through my car stereo when driving, and on my home's main stereo system. These same places and times do overlap my mobile phone use. Yet for me, managing both of these activities on the same device would be impractical and frustrating.

If I am home in my upstairs office and my mobile music phone rings downstairs where it is plugged into my stereo, what happens next? Most likely, nothing as I could never make it across the house to answer the call before it drops into voicemail. In my car, what happens if I am rockin' out and my mobile rings? Does my music automatically mute? What if I don't want it to? Sometimes I want to listen to music through my car stereo speakers as I talk on the phone; sometimes I don't. Either way, any useful converged mobile music phone will need to address these kinds of use cases in an elegant way. Otherwise, it will frustrate users rather than thrill them. Perhaps even worse, the mobile phone/music player may not replace the standalone music player, but rather contribute to a pile of redundant, difficult to synchronize, and so, often unused gizmos cluttering some backpack pocket, glove compartment or forgotten shelf. 

The ability to converge two beloved portable devices may fall within the range of what's technologically possible but we must always keep the rationale use cases top of mind. Consumers may indeed find it nice to have music available on the phone, but it will likely not eliminate the need to have a stand-alone mobile music player.

Mark Willingham is VP of marketing at HeyAnita.