- 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.
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