Music in the Air

Wireless companies prepare for portability

Amid the tangled legal wranglings of and Napster, the vision behind digital music has been forgotten. The best use of digital music isnt to listen to your favorite songs on your computer. Nor is it to trade your treasured albums with friends over the Internet. In fact, the best use of digital music doesnt even involve a computer.

"We all know computers are not engineered to play music," says Michael Downing, co-founder, president and chief executive of Musicbank, an online music service. "Our objective is to take the listening experience off the computer as fast as possible."

Indeed, the goal for many in the digital music world is to use wireless connections to deliver music from the Internet to users wherever they may be. "Wireless distribution delivers on the promise of Net-based music in a way the wired world hasnt," says Aram Sinnreich, a senior analyst at Jupiter Research. "The key problem for digital music has been the lack of portability."

To digital music companies, portability doesnt mean the Sonicblue Rio digital music player. Nor does it mean the Samsung MP3 phone offered by Sprint PCS, though thats a step in the right direction. Those devices still require users to physically connect to their computers. Portability, as digital music mavens envision it, requires an invisible link to the Internet over wireless connections so that users can listen to their favorite songs at any given moment.

Today, the vision of wirelessly delivered digital music is still in the distance, but a number of companies are working toward that end. To Downing, there are three critical environments in which people listen to music: at home, in the office and in a car. The first two are covered, via computers and developments that soon will connect stereos to the Internet. "The real Holy Grail is, people should be able to access their entire CD collection in their cars without having the CDs with them. Theres an important wireless component there," Downing says.

Ideally, users could stream or download their music from the Net to the car using the existing mobile wireless networks, once operators upgrade their wireless networks to third-generation (3G) technology, which can deliver high-speed data. But 3G wont be implemented for a few years. In the meantime, Downing has a couple of ideas for how to work with existing technologies.

Downing imagines that cars could be equipped with wireless receivers in the trunk. Users could utilize their car radios to order music from their personal collections via the Internet. When users pull into certain locations, such as a gas station, radio towers on site would detect and communicate with the receiver in the trunk to transfer the ordered music to the car. Existing wireless technologies could handle such transfers. Musicbank has been talking with auto manufacturers to develop such capabilities, and expects to announce a partnership soon, Downing says.

Ultimately, in-vehicle digital music offerings can be simpler. "On a packet-based network, youll only need one device with a radio, so your phone becomes your router," says John Yuzdepski, vice president and general manager at Sprint PCS. Using the higher-speed networks of the future, the wireless phone could download music from the Internet and transfer it to the car stereo using a short-haul wireless connection, such as Bluetooth.

Sensate, a company that offers software solutions to handset and other consumer electronics manufacturers, is focusing for now on those short-haul technologies that are closer to reality than 3G technology. Supporting technologies such as Bluetooth, Home Radio Frequency and the 802.11 home-networking standard, Sensate is building software for products that enable users to send audio files from their PCs in their homes to their cars nearby. "They are able to line up their music for the day on their PC, then download it to the car," says Robin Dymond, Sensates founder and CEO. Sensates technology is network-agnostic, though, so it will support local area network technologies, 3G and networks that use unlicensed frequencies.

Sprint PCS and HitHive are putting the pieces in place to be able to quickly take advantage of next-generation wireless networks. "Sprint is the groundbreaker for the entire industry," says Mark Tucker, HitHives chairman and CEO.

In November, Sprint PCS introduced the Samsung MP3 phone, which allows users to download music from the Internet via a cable linked to their computers. The phone then becomes like an MP3 Walkman. HitHive hosts the service, including the Web interface called Sprint PCS My Music that allows users to organize their music and create play lists to send to the MP3 phone. Users can also organize play lists from their phones using the Sprint PCS Wireless Web and download them to the phone later when they connect to their PCs.

Sprint PCS is one of the only U.S. wireless operators so far to venture into the digital music territory. "When we started looking at this, it was an incredibly litigious environment," Yuzdepski says. But the potential for the combination of increased data speeds on the Sprint PCS network and the boom in audio content seemed too good to pass up. "We could become the largest distributor of audio content in the world," Yuzdepski says.

While the current Sprint PCS offering doesnt use the airwaves to transfer music, it accomplishes an important strategy. "It gets consumers used to the notion of the phone as a media device," Jupiters Sinnreich says.

HitHive is doing what it can to make an impression on wireless phone users. The company plans to introduce a service in Europe in the spring that will stream music over the regular audio channels of wireless networks. Users can send sample songs to one another using their existing mobile phones, and can listen to the sample without an MP3-enabled handset. "As they start to see new features, theyll say: The next phone I get will be an MP3 phone, " Tucker predicts.