Commentary

Mobile Music: Color Me Unconvinced

I have been playing with a range of wireless mobile music devices this week, from a WiFi-enabled MP3 player to both Sprint and Verizon's music services. I even tried to figure out Microsoft's press releases surrounding the upcoming Zune media player (not as easy as it sounds). After all of that, and even with having free reviewers' access to the complete libraries on all of these systems, my 30GB 5G iPod is the one I snatch from the table on my way out the door. My personal habits suggest that while music yearns to be portable (which has been the case since transistor radios), it doesn't necessarily need to be wireless.

My experience with the surprisingly good music services from Verizon and Sprint is that I just don't use them. With the limited storage available even on the dedicated music phones, the devices still are suited only for impulse buys. You just don't keep a library of tunes here. And sideloading songs onto a phone is way more trouble than it is worth. Verizon, for instance, lets you buy and download tracks directly from the VCast Music site at half the price of a download via the phone, but then you have to navigate the truly sadistic Microsoft Windows Media 10 player interface to transfer songs to the handset.

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Granted, I have played with the upcoming WMP11, and device synching is much improved. Still, until phones get serious storage capabilities, they bring us back to the old sub-1GB MP3 player days when users had to spend more time swapping songs in and out of their devices than listening to them. And don't get me started on those stupid specialty headphones with the micro-jacks that these MP3 phones require. I thought the idea was to integrate functionality so I didn't have to carry anything extra along with me? The carriers might want to recall the early, stagnant days of the MP3 player market, when limited storage and poor interfaces left the henhouse door wide open for Apple to slip in and eat everyone else in a single bite.

Ironically, the music phone systems are very good at finding music quickly and letting you sample the tracks. Discovery is supposed to be the problem for mobile media, but in this case it is the real fun feature. Sprint uses a popularity-driven directory approach that lets you drill into genres and artists and find the most likely choices at the top of the catalogs. Verizon has a nifty predictive search engine that filters results on the fly as you enter more letters so you locate the target in seconds.

I really appreciate the streaming samples, however. The mobile music stores for me are more like portable window shopping--places I sample but don't buy. And the sampling itself has great entertainment value. Even without buying a song, I have fun during five-minute breaks just hearing what is new and deluding myself into thinking I am staying hip. When I find something I like, I remember to buy it for my iPod in iTunes. Thanks, Sprint!

Coming soon from the other side of the MP3/phone equation are the wireless media players. Microsoft's Zune player launches in mid-November with WiFi capabilities, although I am still not clear whether MS intends to make its online music store accessible wirelessly from the device itself. MusicGremlin, an off-brand and mediocre ($299) player is the only device in-market that lets you browse and buy songs directly via its 802.11b connection.

Although many in the press have been clamoring for a wireless iPod, I have to say that accessing a music catalog directly from the player is not as big a deal as many of us hoped. The Gremlin lacks sampling capabilities, which cuts you off from a good piece of the online and mobile experience.

And if you are close to a hot spot (likely your own router), then you probably are close to your PC--a much better device for browsing and managing music. Why bother with a slow WiFi download when you can just synch up? It was nice to download songs on impulse from the player, but that still leaves you having to manage playlists, which is very difficult with these limited mobile interfaces.

In the end, I just wanted to plug the damned thing into my PC and be done with it. Except that the Gremlin, like VCast Music, also relies on Microsoft's (did I already use the term "sadistic?") WMP for synching and playlist management.

The line has always been that people don't want to carry two devices, and so ultimately the phone will trump the MP3 player. I am not convinced that this is the case. I am eager to see how the media players evolve voice capabilities. Everyone continues to wait for Apple's iPhone, but I think the burgeoning SmartPhone market is already showing us that it is more likely that a multifunction device (i.e., a PDA) will morph into a phone than a phone will morph into a multi-function device. Add voice functions to my iPod, and I would be happy to make that my must-carry item. I think the media players and PDAs bring more to the wireless phone table than phones bring to media devices: namely bigger screens, better sound, and more flexible navigation.

My bet is that the coming battle between Apple and Microsoft over portable music and video is going to escalate quickly into the mobile voice world. Cryptically, Microsoft says about the Zune that "with built-in wireless capability in each player, the future is filled with possibilities." Other than being able to beam music to one another, Zune's WiFi functions are not clear yet. But you know that someone in the Redmond skunk works is testing the VoIP possibilities here. Let's just hope it isn't the same usability Nazis that made the barbarous WMP.

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