Digital music sets beat of cell phone bonanza

Agence France Presse

Stockholm, July 3:

With camera phones already sliding into yesterday’s news category, digital music is rapidly becoming the new Eldorado of the mobile phone industry. “All operators we meet say that the most important service for this year is actually mobile music,” Svante Holm, the head of music sales at Swedish mobile phone giant Ericsson, said. Damian Stathonikos, Nokia’s communications manager in multimedia business, agreed. “Many operators in Europe are moving towards music services. In North America and South America, everyone sees mobile music as a really good opportunity,” Stathonikos said. The mobile music bonanza began modestly in 1998 when a small Finnish mobile phone operator, Radiolinja, launched the first-ever ring-tone service for world-leading cell phone maker Nokia. Once revolutionary, those tinny-sounding ring tones are today as good as obsolete, as new-third generation (3G) phones keep pushing the music envelope.

“Mobile phones have more memory space and their performance is rapidly improving,” Holm said, “Now you can fill up your phone with hundreds and hundreds of songs.” With 3G phones today already equipped to play CD-quality music and continuously expanding the storage space available, phone makers hope that they will soon replace other portable music devices like discmans and iPods completely. “Most people are not carrying their music device all the time but they are carrying their phone all the time,” Stathonikos pointed out. Mobile phone companies are not only producing handsets with better sound quality and capacity for easy music downloads, they are also joining forces with Internet music providers and mobile operators to offer phone owners a larger range of music choices.

Last month, for example, Ericsson joined forces with online music-swapping pioneer Napster to offer new digital music services for operators. Having distanced itself from its notorious illegal download days, Napster will help Ericsson provide the service legally and for a fee. The two companies will create a common music download platform that is expected to be made available to operators around the world over the next year, starting in Europe, Holm said.

Other mobile phone makers have opted for more exclusive music-download alliances. Greatly anticipated is a new mobile phone born out of a partnership between US firms Apple and Motorola and expected to appear within a couple of weeks. It has been equipped with software-enabling downloads from Apple’s iTunes Music Stores, which already supply iPod with its oodles of tunes. By joining forces with Apple, which holds 70 per cent of the global online music market and, especially with their iPod, 75 per cent of the high-quality portable music device market, it is all but secured a big bite.