Thursday, February 17, 2005

Cell phones: the iPod killer

Yesterday I pointed out the massive holes in Napster to Go's approach at digital music distribution. One of these flaws is the awkward selection of portable devices available to use with the service. These Windows-only machines, protected by Microsoft's Janus technology, are designed to ensure digital rights integrity. Even the iPod, popular though it may be, it is far from a standard technology.

The power of digital music was first fully realized when the open-standard MP3 transformed a modem into a distribution center. Yes, proprietary formats increased sound quality and compression ratios, and the MP3 may be an inferior technology in these respects, but its ubiquity and status as the only truly freely portable file format secures its current dominance. Digital rights management attached to proprietary formats restricts free access to music. Apple, Microsoft and Napster are stubbornly rejecting community development of technology in favor of controlling the marketplace.

This confusing array of devices will ultimately be irrelevant to the consumer as wireless technology advances. In terms of ubiquity and market share, the cellular phone makes the iPod look like an 8-track. Mobile phone technology is finally at a point where phones can double as music devices. Developments in the mobile phone industry this week signal the first step towards the cell phone's impending dominance of the digital device market. This Red Herring article reveals that this year's 3GSM mobile industry trade conference had the air of a coup:

Handset makers... are emphasizing strategies to turn mobile phones into digital music players, technology one analyst predicts could be an “iPod killer.”

Some of the highlights: Motorola caused a stir when it exhibited a cell phone equipped with iTunes at the show. Microsoft is courting Nokia to release a combination digital music device/cell phone. Sony recently announced plans for a Walkman-branded mobile phone.

There simply is too much money and too much competition in the cell phone industry not to subjugate the music device industry over the next decade. The harbinger of this trend was seen in with the explosive popularity of ring tones in recent years. Even as early as 2003, ring tones accounted for $3.5 billion in sales, equivalent to 10 percent of the global music market.

A new type of record business has already started to form, with some new companies already providing original music for ring tones. Cutting-edge culture observer Douglas Rushkoff takes future of mobile music further in this excellent article at The Feature, suggesting that ring tones are a new medium for personal expression:

A ringtone is about the most basic way of expressing oneself musically. Users who purchase ringtones may have no aspirations to compose or even mix themselves, but the urge to customize a ring has as much to do with what a person wants to tell everyone around her as it does what she likes to hear. A ringtone isn't a way of listening to a tune -- it's a way of playing a tune for others, of publicly declaring one's musical taste and cultural allegiance.... That's why the next stage in wireless music appreciation is not downloading longer bits of music, but learning how to broadcast ringtones to others.

It's an enticing thought: each cell phone user broadcasting their own personal ring tone to all of their friends. More poignantly, it's this fusion of communication device and jukebox that dooms the proprietary music device hardware market. It won't be long before the iPod is a quaint reminder of early 2000 pop culture.


Anonymous Aron Malkine said...

An article (
entry/1234000733050976/) I read recently said that birds are starting to learn cell phone ring tones and add them to their mating call reperatoir. The article (jokingly) sighted that the NIAA would be taking action against anyone caught broadcasting their copywrited ringtones to birds. Ha!

12:36 PM  

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