Musically Talented Mobile Phones

The success of Apple’s iPod, sales of which recently surpassed 100 million units, not only changed the way digital audio player (DAPs) makers thought of and designed their devices. It also caught the eye of mobile phone manufacturers. After adding cameras, then video recorders, it was natural that cell phone makers decided to try their hand at giving their devices digital audio playback capabilities.

The results for mobile manufacturers have been mixed at best. Early models such as the Motorola Rokr, a joint venture with Apple, were less than dazzling to say the least. The highly anticipated phone was targeted directly at iPod lovers. Upon its release in September 2005, it hit a rather flat note. Users decried the Rokr’s measly 100 song storage capabilities, painfully slow iTunes interface, paltry Bluetooth functionality and sluggish music transfer speeds.

However, that was certainly not the music phone’s swan song. Between Nokia and Sony Ericsson alone, 125 million music phones were sold in 2006.

Now Apple is ready to return to the music phone space — this time on its own. The company is set to launch its iPhone in June into a market that is positively awash in smartphones that also play music.

There is, however, a difference between a phone with music playback capabilities and a phone designed with music in mind. Some phones, it seems, are decidedly more musically talented than others.

Who’s Talking and Who’s Grooving

“All the major vendors are releasing, have released and continue to release devices that have digital music capabilities on it. It tends to be MP3, AAC or AAC+ capable devices,” Tuong Nguyen, an analyst at Gartner, told TechNewsWorld. “Some work better than others, particularly the ones that are more dedicated to music with dedicated music keys.”

As might be expected, the folks using music phones are demographically similar to those people who use an iPod. They fall into the 18- to 34-year-old demographic, David Chamberlain, a principal analyst at InStat, told TechNewsWorld. They are typically gadget lovers who will spend money on the phone and then use it. That said, Chamberlain noted, statistics show that many people are just not loading that many songs onto music phones.

“One of things we found out in a recent survey was that over half the people who had a music phone don’t have a one song loaded on them,” he said. “Not a single one. And mostly it’s because they don’t care,” he said.

“Forty-four percent had zero songs; 18 percent said they did not have as many songs as they wanted. That leaves 38 percent that are actually using their phones the way they want to as music phones,” Chamberlain continued.

While a growing number of providers are pushing services that allow users to buy and download songs directly into their phones, consumers as a whole have been slow to bite. If they want to add music to their phones, most people are “side loading,” or taking music they already own and downloading them to the phone, Chamberlain explained. That is in part due to the fact that many phones are not using the 3G network, but a lower speed network. Over-the-air downloads and purchases, therefore ,are not “really in the cards because of that.”

Still music phones haven’t failed completely in capturing consumer mindshare. In another survey, Chamberlain found that nearly 30 percent of the people planning to buy a DAP would consider purchasing a music phone and consider making it their primary music device.

“We looked at that and said that group could potentially purchase their phone and never buy a music device,” Chamberlain noted. “But, when you live with [a music phone] for a while it’s not as good. It’s good but the experience is not as good.

“Even with my Sony Ericsson [Walkman] phone, I don’t have the ability make some playlists on the run or make playlists on my computer and load them on the phone. It’s really, really good, but it is still not an iPod.”

The User Interface Question

Hardware is one thing, but another vital sticking point for a music phone is its user interface (UI). That is where mobile manufacturers and carriers can really make some improvements, Chamberlain said. mSpot, a mobile multimedia entertainment service, takes a carrier-based approach to the UI, said the company’s CEO Daren Tsui.

Verizon, for instance, has offered the truest integration for the longest amount of time, he told TechNewsWorld. Instead of trying to rebuild the entire ecosystem with their own PC hardware, the company adopted the Microsoft Windows DRM (digital rights management) and uses Windows Media Player and other products to sync devices back and forth. Subscribers can purchase tracks, videos and games from Verizon’s VCast Store.

“If you look at their Chocolate line [of cell phones] and the LG, you can just bring up the Windows Media Player and use that to manage your song library. So they don’t have to go out and write their own software,” he said.

AT&T does not have its own music store. Instead, the carrier chose to partner with Napster and Yahoo Music. “They support whichever online service uses Microsoft DRM,” Tsui explained “It’s pretty cool, and as far as the syncing goes it’s pretty good. You can either buy full tracks or sign up for the subscription service that gives you access to nearly 3 million songs. Drop your subscription and you lose access to your songs.”

Best of Breed

Among the many phones that offer music playing functionality, three phones from Samsung, Sony Ericsson and Nokia stand out from the crowd. Other than the Samsung UpStage, none of the other phones offer an extended battery, but music playback is not a major energy drain, Gartner’s Nguyen pointed out.

  • The newly released Samsung UpStage SPH-M620 for Sprint offers a dual-sided design with a mobile phone on one side and a music player on the other.

    The phone side is fairly standard and doesn’t offer many different features than other Samsung designs. The ultra-thin, candy bar phone has a 65,000-color TFT display measuring 1.4 inches. Users can make calls, send text messages and take photos using the 1.3 megapixel camera.

    The UpStage’s wow factor comes on the flip side. Turn the phone over, and a music player is found on the other side. The 2.1-inch TFT display supports 262,000 colors and allows users to browse through the mobile music manager — an iTunes-like user interface. Just below the screen, the square touchpad responds to a light touch. Tap the top of the pad to open the main menu, move through the menus with a tap on the up, down, right or left directions or simply brush your finger from side to side or up and down.

    “Integration is much better. It used to be on some of the older devices that if you were listening to an MP3 it was kind of clumsy for users to make a call as well as jumping back and forth from a song or text somebody or go onto the wireless Internet. They (were) very sort of single task,” Tsui explained.

    “The UpStage is different. It’s what they call a multivirtual machine, which means you can actually play music in the background while doing whatever you want on the phone. Without that, it really makes the phone a difficult device to be the default primary music player,” he added.

    Samsung has really leveraged the Over The Air (OTA) feature, Tsui pointed out, so that users can buy full tracks and ring tones OTA without having to sync the device with a computer. It is one the first phones using a dedicated syncing software called the “mobile music manager,” which looks a lot like the iTunes user interface. Users can move songs back and forth using a sync cable rather than pulling a MicroSD card out of the phone and inserting it into a PC.

    The phone’s downside is that certain applications only function on one side of the phone. Using one side of the phone renders the keys and display on the other side inactive. Most important, though, is the absence of stereo speakers on the music phone. The device’s single speaker is OK, but is positioned on the phone side, which greatly reduces sound quality. On the upside, however, Samsung has designed a leather wallet that protects the phone and also holds an extended battery for longer uptime. It’s also reduced the price of tracks sold at its Sprint Music Store to just 99 US cents.

    “I like where Sprint is taking this,” Tsui said.

  • Nokia’s N95 is a dual-slide phone sold by T-Mobile and AT&T (formerly Cingular). Slip the front cover up to expose the phone’s alphanumeric keypad or slide it down to reveal the controls for the media player. The device also boasts a 2.6-inch QVGA (quarter video graphics array) TFT (thin-film transistor) screen with up to 16 million-color output and a 3.5mm headset jack, affording users the option of plugging in their favorite pair of headphones or earbuds.

    It supports MP3, WMA, W4A, AAC, AAC+ and eAAC+ music formats and also OMA (openMG audio) DRM 2.0 and WM DRM (Windows Media) protected songs. The phone also offers an FM radio and a built-in equalizer.

    In terms of the UI, the phone categorizes tracks in the music library by artist, album, genre and composer. Users can also create playlists directly on the phone.

    The N95 also sports a five-megapixel camera, integrated GPS (global positioning satellite), WiFi and Bluetooth, a video recorder with sound in MP4 or 3GP, a microSD expansion slot and infrared port.

  • Sony Ericsson’s line of Walkman phones, from the yet-to-be released W580i and W660i to the W200a, W710i and W810i, all feature MP3 players. They’re available in a range of designs, including clamshell, candy bar, slider, swivel and touchscreen, and offer up to 34 MB of phone memory. That’s nothing compared to the memory found on even the smallest iPod, however, the Walkman phones support Sony’s Memory Stick Micro (M2), which can bump capacity up to multiple gigabytes.

    From the Walkman phone’s main menu, users can organize their tracks by artist, track name or playlist. They can also choose settings, including album/song shuffle or loop, stereo widening, and equalizer. Moving from music playback to the phone function is simple — when a call comes in, the music automatically stops.

    After the end of the call, users just need to hit the dedicated music key and the song will continue from where it left off. When using other functions, the player can be minimized. For frequent flyers, the phones offer an airplane mode that enables users to turn off the cell phone and still listen to their tunes while in-flight.

    The line, according to Gartner’s Nguyen, has become popular in part because people identify with the Walkman brand.

Other phones with music talents include the LG Chocolate KG800 and VX8500 for Verizon, the recently released LG VX9400, Nokia’s N73, and the Samsung BlackJack and Sync.

“All devices are slowly coming out with music playback features, but certain ones will be more dedicated to the music functionality than others,” Nguyen said.

“Those do slightly better because there are so many features packed on the phones that it is hard to navigate to the feature that you want to find. It also comes down to how they set up the phone. The Nokia N73 is a consumer multimedia phone. It does not have dedicated keys, but there is a shortcut already on the desktop that will take you to your music library,” Nguyen concluded.

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