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Will Your Music Hub Be a Phone?

A cellular handset expected from Motorola would play songs on your home or car stereo.

April 18, 2005|Jon Healey | Times Staff Writer

Motorola Corp. is developing mobile phones with a novel capability: They can link a home computer, stereo and car sound system into a seamless, commercial-free music zone.

The company plans to launch a service, dubbed iRadio, that allows the new phones to download songs and radio programming from an Internet- connected computer each day, then beam them to car stereos or home entertainment centers.

The phones are not expected to reach the market until later this year, with the iRadio service due in December, said David E. Ulmer, a top marketing executive at Motorola. The company needs one or more mobile phone companies to sign on, and none have publicly lent support.

The iRadio initiative reflects the intense interest that phone manufacturers, music companies and mobile network operators have in new music services for cellphones. Their appetites whetted by the multibillion-dollar global market for ring tones, they are eager to sink their teeth into song downloads, online jukeboxes and music videos -- even though it's not clear what, if anything, customers will buy.

Motorola's approach also is a harbinger of an era to come, in which all sorts of digital devices automatically will connect and share with one another whenever they come into range. People's mobile devices will routinely link to their home networks and their cars using technologies such as Bluetooth, a standard for short-range wireless communications.

One key to winning carriers' support, analysts say, is giving them a financial incentive to offer the service. The iRadio service would do that by having carriers collect and keep the bulk of the monthly service fee, which Ulmer said would probably be $5 to $7.

Motorola previously announced a new phone that would play songs purchased from Apple Computer Inc.'s market-leading iTunes Music Store. But no carriers are offering the phone because they would receive no share of the store's sales, music industry sources say.

Although the Swiss Army Knife approach has not worked well for many portable devices, the cellphone is so indispensable to most users that they may want to expand its functions and leave their other gear at home.

"The cellphone as a device for making more than just phone calls, that's a winning proposition," said Adam Klein, executive vice president for strategy and business development at EMI Music. "That's an established, accepted pattern among consumers already."

The increasing capacity of wireless networks and advancing mobile-phone technology have led carriers to experiment with an assortment of music offerings and other new services. And phone manufacturers have obliged over the last year by introducing models with the powerful chips and extra storage needed to hold and play sizable quantities of music, images and video.

Ulmer said one of the goals of iRadio was to provide a bridge between online radio and people's car stereos. The service will let customers load their phones with prerecorded, commercial-free digital radio stations. The phones will connect via Bluetooth to specially equipped car stereos, enabling people to listen to the stations stored on the phones as if they were coming in over the air.

When they step out of their cars, they can continue listening to the stations or MP3 files by plugging headphones into their phone. They could also hit the pause button, then resume playing through a Bluetooth-equipped home stereo.

Analyst Ted Schadler of Forrester Research was skeptical about music services on the cellphone, arguing that the demand for ring tones was driven more by a desire to personalize phones than to be entertained by them. David Card, an analyst at Jupiter Research, added that mobile music services would have a hard time succeeding if they required a bulky phone, shortened battery life or ate into the customer's airtime.

By using the phone more as a storage locker than a portable music player or Internet jukebox, Ulmer said, iRadio should not drain the phone's battery or gobble up airtime. The mobile network would be used only for premium services that provided breaking news, weather, traffic or sports information, he said.

Still, iRadio would require users not only to buy a new phone but also to install Bluetooth adapters in their cars and homes to take full advantage of the service.

Charles Golvin, another Forrester analyst, said the market for services such as iRadio might prove to be large because about a third of cellphone users are focused on entertainment. Those users are likely to be drawn to a service that offers something they cannot get through their PC or at their home.

Said Golvin, "If there isn't that urgency or exclusivity, those things aren't going to fly."

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