Sprint Nextel Corp. launched the United States first mobile audio download service on Monday, introducing Music Store, which allows the companys subscribers to buy and listen to songs on their mobile phones without ever using a PC.
With the debut of the service, which is being delivered via technology from wireless audio specialists Groove Mobile, Sprint now offers its customers all three of the major portable music delivery platforms, including streaming content, downloads and satellite radio. The service was introduced as part of Overland Park, Kansas-based Sprints Power Vision multimedia network, which now offers streaming radio and TV, mobile data capabilities, and the ability to use your handset as a modem, along with Music Store.
Unlike Apple Inc.s market-leading iTunes download service, Music Store doesnt require customers to interface at all with a computer in order to push music to their phones. While Apple has launched the Rokr, a handset built in tandem with Motorola Inc. that can have MP3 files saved into its memory, consumers cannot use the phones to access the online iTunes service or to download content directly.
For its part, Groove is already serving up a similar service for customers of mobile operator Orange in the U.K.
Using Music Store, subscribers can buy titles from the collections of EMI Music, Sony BMG, Warner Music Group and Universal Music Group at $2.50 per song. With each purchase a customer gets two copies of a track, with one formatted for usage on a mobile device and another shipped along for PC download and CD burning purposes. Sprint claims that the audio download to a handheld is completed in roughly 30 seconds per song.
Music Store also offers a wireless application for creating and using play lists, and software for moving other MP3s from a PC onto a mobile phone. The company will ship a stereo headset to people subscribing to the service.
As part of the launch, Sprint introduced two new mobile handsets for customers to use with the multimedia services, the Power Vision Phone MM-9000 made by Sanyo Electric Co. and the Power Vision Phone MM-A940 by Samsung. The Power Vision-capable phones include a removable memory card needed to download and play songs using the service, and Sprint said that customers using an optional 1GB memory card will have the ability to store up to 1,000 Music Store songs, or 330 MP3s from outside the download network.
“Sprint is first carrier in the United States to deliver what customers want most in a wireless music store, the instant gratification of downloading and owning their own personal collection of high-quality songs on a device that is always with them,” Len Lauer, chief operating officer for Sprint Nextel, said in a statement. “Their phone is always with them, now so is the music they want.”
The Music Store features a text menu that offers 30-second previews of the available songs, and download charges are added directly to a subscribers phone bill. The low-fi version of a song created for download on a handset is delivered as a 32K bps AAC+ file, while the other version, which can be played on up to three PCs, burned onto CDs or transferred to Microsoft PlaysForSure-compatible players, comes as a 128K bps WMA file. The service does not yet support Apple Inc.s MacIntosh computers.
Subscribers can also create music play lists in a PC text editor, rather than having to build them on their phones.
Industry watchers said that Sprints Music Store launch should be followed by similar offerings from other leading U.S. wireless providers such as AT&T Corp., Verizon Communications Inc. and Cingular Wireless.
According to Clint Wheelock, analyst for NPD Group, Port Washington, N.Y., mobile operators view music as promising revenue opportunity as their voice services become commoditized. The analyst said that carriers are betting that they can steal business from Apples iTunes, which only recently made the jump from computers to handhelds.
“Wireless companies are using PC-based digital music services as a guide, and theyve got the advantage that a cell phone is an always-on device versus something like an MP3 player,” Wheelock said. “Sprint is experimenting with all the different models now with downloads, streaming and satellite, and that will allow them to follow consumer demand and grow where people show the most interest.”
The analyst said that Sprint will benefit from getting its service into the hands of users before its rivals but pointed out that those companies will have an opportunity to observe the carriers performance and learn from its mistakes. He said that the largest obstacle to the adoption of mobile downloads in the U.S. has been a lack of capable handsets, but indicated that the issue is being eliminated rapidly.
“A key factor with this type of service is the additional base of compatible phones which is growing every month now,” said Wheelock. “Sprint is coming into the market with premium pricing for the download, but 20 percent of all consumers have told us that they are interested in pushing MP3s to their cell phones, so it might draw interest.”
Despite the potential to lure new download users, Wheelock said that Apples iPod music players shouldnt feel immediate pressure from handheld download services. According to NPDs latest research only about 13 percent of MP3 player owners it has surveyed said that they hope to replace the devices with download-capable mobile phones.