Some more thoughts on mobile phones for your music

Everyone, it seems, is getting very excited about the BusinessWeek article (entitled “iPod killers” in the magazine I read) which suggests that mobile phones are going to be the natural successor to the iPod, because you’ll be able to download music onto them over the airwaves – such a more convenient thing to do than using your computer. And lots more mobile phones are sold than iPods. Or all digital music players.

OK, I’ve been thinking about this, because I wrote a column the other week on this sort of topic for The Independent, and for Netimperative.

My first thought is that this whole “iPod killer!” storyline gets trotted out soooooo often, because it fits so neatly into what Doc Searls calls “fight journalism”, where there’s no story unless you have the metaphor of a boxing match, with only one left standing. In reality, most business is much deeper, more like Go – one player simply gets more territory than the other(s).

Here I agree (as I do almost all the time) with Michael Gartenberg, of Jupiter Research, who wrote:

Mark Cuban goes on a rant about the death of the desktop PC and how mobile gadgets will replace it. I think mark’s a little off here. While he correctly notes the overlapping nature of his various devices, he ignores the secondary functions are often mediocre. My phone is a poor camera, my camera a poor mp3 player and my mp3 player a poor PIM. The key is context. When walking in SF on Tuesday and struck by a moment, I was able to snap a pic on my cameraphone but when I go on vacation you better believe my digital rebel will be along. Its not convergence, its context. Likewise, on the plane I needed to create a presentation, respond to a few hundred emails and write a several reports. In theory I could have used my Treo for that but it wouldn’t have been productive or pleasant.

I agree that it can be a pain switching between headphone sets when you’re listening to some music and your phone goes. This doesn’t mean, though, that I’m going to be buying music on my phone until it offers me the same convenience and flexibility as buying it online. I can’t put the music from my phone onto my PC. I can’t play it through my hi-fi. The sound quality isn’t going to be as good.

And that’s before we get onto the question of “yeah, but phones will have so much storage in a couple of years.” Sure, but iPods and other players already have tons of storage. Storage is not the issue in any but the highest-end of players, in which case you want a dedicated one anyway.

There are three more issues: battery life, interface and song price. Battery life is a big issue with a phone (as it has been with iPods). You want the maximum standby and talk time. Having music on it stored on a hard drive will knacker the battery if you listen to much of it; you’ll have to charge it up every evening, and if you have to do that, you might as well get one of those iPod things, which are cheaper. Or else they’ll need flash memory, which is expensive; phone networks aren’t going to be willing to subsidise that cost as well as everything else they subsidise in a phone’s price.

Interface. Oh Lord, save me from phones which try to do too many things. I have so many arguments every day with my Sony Ericsson T610 – and this is a phone I’ve had for two years or so. The buttons don’t do consistent things in similar situations. And then imagine trying to scroll through a huge collection of songs to find just the one you want (because it’s no use to the phone network selling you songs if you can’t store lots of songs). How can you search your phone address book at present? If it’s like mine, then it’s by the first letter of the entry. That’s all. That makes a terrible interface for listening to songs. Hey, you say, but what about the iPod shuffle? No finding songs on that. Yes, but that sells because Apple did it. Nobody else could pull that off. Seriously. The whole interface thing on phones and music is messed up. Phones are great for phone calls, terrible for searching through lots of information for a particular piece. Phones will be OK for playing about 10 to 20 songs. No good for 200+ songs. (In the same way, it’s a painful process trying to find a particular contact on your iPod, because it has no search facility. Imagine all those contacts are your songs. Now you see what a pain a music phone without a really good interface would be.)

Finally, song price. True, as the article says, the networks don’t have to pay credit card charges on each song; they can just add it to the bill, which could in theory make them 25p or so cheaper. But the network has to pay for all the bandwidth of getting the song to you. They also have to defray the cost of subsidising getting that handset into your clammy hands. So they’ll bump the price of the song up. A song on the networks now costs much more than one on iTunes or anywhere else. To quote the article: One knowledgeable source close to Apple says the operators are simply being unrealistic if they expect customers to pay $2 or $3 for a song, especially with restrictions. “If you can get something for a buck, why would you buy it for $3?” says the source. “Do they think people are that dumb?”

Then again, people buy ringtones for inflated prices, which seems unspeakably dumb. But I realised today (perhaps years after everyone else) that ringtones are just a musical means of personalising your phone, in the same way that people more cheaply used to stick coloured fascias on them.

However, songs don’t personalise your phone in the same way. They’re a more intense experience. I know everyone’s talking about this, seeing it as inevitable. But a few years ago they saw smartphones that did everything as inevitable too. Since then, smartphones have, if not withered on the vine, then certainly not grown their market share. Interesting that Apple decided to steer clear of that market.

And in the meantime, why does everyone assume that Apple, and everyone else, will just stand still? They’re already doing things like high-quality photo and video display. Expect wireless (Bluetooth?) next. The arrows that the phone companies are shooting are aimed at a target that’s still moving.


  1. You hit all the nails on their heads…ain’t gonna happen :-)

  2. My Treo 600 has an mp3player, room for 80 songs and a headphone. It syncs automatically with iTunes via “The Missing Sync”. Still I never use it as an mp3 player because it’s too complicated (managing playlists is too hard and I can’t manage the phone playlists on my computer either)

    Still I do think the Motorola iPod could be a success if it has the interface and connectivity of a usual iPod… All they need is T-Mobile…

    I mean, I also like to have my agenda and adressbook in my phone with a querty keyboard and good search and backup functionality.

  3. Tell you what could be a good UI for stuff like music on mobile phones, if they can get it to work: voice recognition.

    How the hell have we not got that working well yet? It’s been talked about for years.

  4. It will happen eventually, just not for a while. People did not believe cameraphones would dent camera sales, but already they have decimated the disposable camera sector and when 5 megapixel cameras arrive it will do the same for compacts. Then the ‘point and shoot’ market. The only standalone cameras left will be for the keen amateur and professional.
    For MP3 players, the attraction is not having to yank the earphones out when the phone rings. Memory and battery life will be adequate very soon. And someone will eventually create an interface that works, and will wipe the iPod off the map. Mind you, that may not be for a few years yet.
    As to downloads, the networks are going to have to accept that users will want to jam their MP3phones with stuff from their CD collections, websites and just a few impulse purchases made over the air — people who see a poster advertising the latest song from their favourite band and just have to listen right then and there.
    My two penn’orth

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