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A Cingular sensation

Cingular_logo I'm a reasonably early adopter and, as should be apparent from this blog, a music fiend. As soon as it was time to get another free phone from Verizon, I did -- an LG 8100, with built-in MP3 player. I also rushed out and got a memory card (in yet another format, miniSD ... give me a break!) so I could load up my phone with tunes. Then, after about two weeks of never listening to MP3s on my phone, I erased the songs to make more room for pictures of my kids.
That's why I shrugged when I saw the Wall Street Journal's story about Cingular getting into the downloadable music biz. Ummm, so what? Yes, it's kinda neat that (according to the Journal) Cingular plans to support subscription music services, giving users unlimited access to a library of a couple of million songs for a flat monthly fee. That's an instant differentiator from other carriers' music services, whose phones won't play rented tunes. But it also means supporting a DRM that doesn't play for sure. So good luck, guys. (The one subscription service in Cingular's mix that avoids this problem is eMusic, which provides a fixed allotment of MP3s per month that aren't wrapped in DRM.)
IMHO, there's nothing inherently magical about a music service offered by a mobile phone company. I don't accept the conventional wisdom that music-playing cellphones are intrinsically appealing because people don't really want to carry both an MP3 player and a phone. Tens of millions of people who tote iPods in the U.S. also pack cellphones, so that's a well established behavior pattern. I don't think the convergence of cellphones and MP3 players will really happen until mobile music services become unique, compelling and a better value than they are today. Helio is an interesting experiment along those lines. I also very much like the idea of a portable device that can wirelessly tap into your subscription service or personal music collection, one that doesn't limit you to the songs stored in your phone's memory. But such a service will probably have to wait until the mobile networks have a lot more bandwidth, so users won't have to pay such a premium for using airtime. Another nifty possibility that no one seems to be pursuing is a music service that takes advantage of cellphones' awareness of their location. Imagine getting playlists based on where you're shopping or killing time. The point, again, is that a mobile music service needs not only to be portable, but also to take advantage of the powers of the mobile network.
Today's services from the major carriers give users little more than the ability to download songs through the wireless network (something that Cingular won't support at first, by the way) or sideload them from a PC. And given the cost per track of downloading (about $2.50), you have to either be enough of a spendthrift not to care about the price or simply unable to wait to buy the song through your home PC. There's a surprising number of people who meet these descriptions, but we're not talking iTunes Store numbers.
Personally, I can't imagine downloading a song for the price charged by the mobile phone companies. Besides, I'd rather listen to music on one of my MP3 players, which is dedicated to that task, than on my phone, which isn't. The only compelling reason to drain my phone's battery by playing music is that it's nice to be able to take a call without unplugging your headphones. Maybe if I received more calls, I'd care more about the plug swap.

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Times editorial writer Jon Healey pens opinion pieces about a variety of business issues, and blogs about technologies that are changing the entertainment industry's business model.

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