Rory Cellan-Jones

Mobile Music - how unlimited, how free?

  • Rory Cellan-Jones
  • 24 Sep 08, 12:25 GMT

Yet another digital music offering has been unveiled this morning. This time it's from Sony Ericsson, in conjunction with Britain's Omnifone, and it seems designed to steal the thunder from Nokia's "Comes With Music" service which arrives next month.

Sony Ericsson will launch a number of Walkman phones with a service called PlayNow Plus, allowing users "unlimited" downloads of tracks onto the phone or to a computer if they sign up to a contract.

The PR man from Omnifone who rang me about the story seemed surprised that I didn't realise just how huge this was: "This is the biggest deal announced so far in mobile music," he told me excitedly. Yes, I thought, the biggest since the last one... What it does highlight is the move to a new subscription model for digital music, where you get unlimited music for an annual fee. The big question here is what is meant by "unlimited" - and how much it will cost consumers.

What has made these subscription deals less than attractive up until now is that once you stop paying, you lose access to your music but the impression given by Sony and Omnifone is that you buy the phone - and then you get access to millions of tracks that are yours to keep and use how you like. That sounds like a plan to give the entire music industry away to anyone who shells out for a phone contract, so I couldn't quite believe it.

But it turns out that the Sony deal is a bit more complex than it first appears. Yes, you can download as much as you like - to your phone or your computer - for the duration of the contract. But the music does come wrapped in DRM - Digital Rights Management software which controls and monitors the way you use it. At the end of your contract, you do get to keep up to 300 tracks DRM free, but not the rest.

My combative PR friend insisted this was a much better deal than Nokia was promising. So I rang Nokia - who said, "no, no, no - our "Comes With Music" allows you to keep all the music you've downloaded forever." "Ah," responded the Omnifone man, "but you can only play it on your computer or a Nokia device, because it is wrapped up in DRM."

Both services have their selling points - but what neither is making clear yet is just how much consumers will pay.

Omnfone boasts that the technology it's offering to Sony Ericsson "supports operator's need to monetize their data networks and increase revenue from mobile music services." But, in the words of the PR man, "it can be presented as free to users who are not used to paying for music."

In other words - they think they've finally worked the trick of extracting large amounts of cash from users of digital music without them noticing. If they're right, then Omnifone and Sony Ericsson will be the toast of the music and mobile industries.


  • Comment number 1.

    I'm getting sick and tired of companies trying to screw as much money as possible out of the digital music-buying public. They seem to think we're all thick and simply willing to hand over copious amounts of cash for heavily restricted music (Apple users notwithstanding).

    Online music piracy will never disappear unless all companies involved stop treating people like criminals.

    I hope both systems fail miserably.

  • Comment number 2.

    The trouble with these is will they have a sufficiently large back catalogue? If it's got the sort of songs I want then I'll be considering this, I always use Sony Ericsson phones and don't bother with my MP3 player anymore as the walkman on there is just as good and it saves me carrying 2 devices (well 3 if you include my work phone).

    I expect they won't make the contracts much more expensive than a normal unlimited internet contract as it just wouldn't be attractive to their target audience. I'm guessing £40 a month with a free phone, if it's any more than that then they're going to be very disappointed with the uptake!

  • Comment number 3.

    I think ideas like this are the future...

    If the cost is right, either low or hidden then unlimited access to music seems like a great idea!

    Why carry around a large and limited library when I can grab a mobile phone and listen to the latest music simply by switching it on and having music easily downloaded?

    Someone commented that companies treat us like criminals... how so?

    Music subscription systems ARE good value, not only that but the bands and labels get paid on a per play basis.

    Ideas like this will eventually put an end to the majority of illegal downloads.

  • Comment number 4.


    How exactly is this "unlimited access"? By it's very definition, this means without bounds or restrictions, but all the music will have DRM which is a complete contradiction in terms. What happens in a few years down the line when you've upgraded your mobile (most likely to a different make and/or model) and got a new PC?

    I don't know about anyone else, but I'd get tired of downloading my favourite songs every time I upgraded my mobile.

  • Comment number 5.

    Hmm. I've been told by a Sony Ericsson spokesperson you only get to keep 100 of your top tracks, which is an entirely different proposition i.e. a bit rubbish. I wonder if SE and Omni have spoken recently.

  • Comment number 6.

    These unlimited download services seem like a crappy halfway house between music on demand and downloads. You're effectively renting the music, so why not just say so?

  • Comment number 7.

    This comment was removed because the moderators found it broke the house rules. Explain.

  • Comment number 8.

    A DRM-free version of Nokia's "Comes with Music" is all but unimaginable, so we're stuck with a "Napster" type phone - but perhaps a halfway house is feasible?

    If only the majors can be more flexible with the songs, that would be good.

    For example, allow users to choose X tracks every month they are on the contract to keep without DRM or burn on a CD for free.

    And offer users a slightly more pricey subscription which allows more tracks to be DRM-free during the period.

    Lastly, instead of giving them a flat 300 songs at the end, perhaps give more songs back to them the longer their contract lasted (would encourage loyalty).

    Advertising features would distract from the "free music" marketing message, but as many have rightly pointed out, at least they should be honest/upfront with the consumer about the DRM-feature and include more mitigating features to make the DRM subscription a bit more stomachable...

  • Comment number 9.

    Silly old me, paying 80p/track for 16bit 44.1khz uncompressed, DRM-free music that comes with a long term physical archive and even a nice box with pictures in it.

    I must be mad to wait the 24-48 hours it takes for this old-fashioned CD to arrive when I can have a sub-standard, restrictive and finite version on my phone in less time for more money.

    Dear Music Industry

    You are still not getting it.

    Your customers...for now

  • Comment number 10.

    ephemeral01 wrote:Someone commented that companies treat us like criminals... how so?

    By asserting that if they don't cripple the product by wrapping it in chains you'll steal it. Because you're a thief.

    That's how.

  • Comment number 11.

    I have to agree with 9.

    I won't even consider buying mp3s that have DRM but even without DRM most are still too expensive.

    For example I picked up the latest Elbow album at a supermarket (whilst I was doing my shopping) for £7.93 with all the benefits mentioned above by 9 (nice artwork, a box, easy to play in my car, uncompressed and most importantly a permanent archive I can go back to if my PC and backup system fail). The same album at a leading digital music outlet is £7.49. I don't think I would have paid more than £5.99 for the digital version.

  • Comment number 12.

    I'm with 9.

    CD is the way to go with music.

  • Comment number 13.

    I also agree with 9

    CD's are the future!!!

    I think if you buy a Full Album digitally... you should also receive a physical copy of the CD as well!! or as was pointed out, we are really just renting the music!

    ITunes is poor... I upgraded my iphone, lost the music I had purchased, and had to buy it all again!!

    With a CD you can rip it and transfer the music to your mobile device as many times as you want and still have a backup.

    Until DRM free downloads are the norm.. I won't be purchasing anymore music digitally.


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