MP3 Phones will be crippled

There was quite a discussion in my post asking Will your next music device be your cellphone?. The author of Communities Dominates Brands responded, and Sandy backed up my thoughts that it’ll be some time before a cell phone can replace your ipod/music player of choice. What I think is that it isn’t a question of technology – clearly cell phones are becoming tightly integrated, multi function devices. But was makes an MP3 player good, and the iPod really good, is the ease of use and the music catalog that is behind it. Big music companies aren’t going to release their songs as MP3s, they want formats restricted by Digital Rights Management that gives them the power to control how and when you play the songs you purchase. As long as the music catalogs aren’t available, or phones are restricted to 100 songs or some nonsense limit like that, then it won’t matter how many mp3/music capable phones are sold to the public even by next year. There won’t be much music to listen to on them.

Wired has an article on the Battle for the Soul of the MP3 Phone that is a much more thorough explanation of the forces at work. Some choice quotes, but really you should go read it and save me the trouble of copying and pasting the good parts here.

What should a music phone offer? The specs aren’t hard to figure out. For starters, it should have clearly marked Pause and Play buttons so as not to trip up people like Steve Jobs. It should sync quickly and easily with your computer, and you should be able to use it to buy music at a reasonable price. It should play music from iTunes or any other music service. You should be able to choose different amounts of memory, and whatever you decide on, it shouldn’t be constrained to 100 songs – or any other arbitrary limi

For a carrier, the whole point of putting music on a cell phone is to make money on data traffic from songs downloaded wirelessly. Carriers also like to make money handling the billing for those downloads. Yet the ROKR puts Apple’s iTunes in charge. The only way to load music onto the phone is to sync it with your computer; to buy new music, you have to access the iTunes store through your computer, bypassing the carrier’s network and billing service. Even worse from the carriers’ point of view, iTunes would compete with the music stores they themselves are setting up.

Anssi Vanjoki, executive vice president of Nokia and head of its multimedia group, has bad news for the labels. In an impossibly sleek conference room at Nokia’s steel and glass headquarters in Espoo, a woodsy Helsinki suburb, Vanjoki is showing off the new N91, a 3G Symbian handset that will go on sale this winter. As a music phone, the N91 is everything the ROKR is not. It can hold a thousand songs or more. It has a rugged 4-gigabyte hard drive as well as Wi-Fi and a high-speed USB connection. “If you want to do file-sharing, this is also possible,” Vanjoki says. “Because this is not a mobile phone, it is a computer.