I Want My MP3
By Heidi Kriz, Tue Nov 21 00:00:00 GMT 2000

America's Sprint PCS has released an innovative MP3 service -- built around a Samsung phone with a buiit-in player -- just in time for Christmas.

The gift-giving season is snapping at our heels, like a maiden aunt's yappy terrier. You know what that means; those lovely folks in manufacturing-land are busy making more toys for girls and boys everywhere.

Of course, the world of wireless is no exception. So the giants in the industry are racing to be the first to cash in on that lucrative teen and college-age demographic whose life revolves around two things: talking on the phone and listening to music.

And first out of the gate with a product that marries those two activities is Samsung Electronics Corp, which is about to start shipping a flashy new product called "Uproar."

Samsung has teamed up with Sprint PCS - the fourth-biggest wireless carrier in the United States - to produce Uproar, a sleek, silver, futuristic-looking cellular phone with an integrated MP3 player. It stores up to an hour's worth of MP3 music, has a wireless Web browser, and is even kitted out with a personal organizer. It also comes with a pretty hefty price tag - $399 retail.

"But that's less than you would pay separately for a cellular phone and a portable MP3 player," points out Sprint PCS spokeswoman Nancy Sherrer.

Store Those Tunes

And there's another feature thrown into mix that makes things a little more interesting - and might ease the pain of coughing up the dough.

Everyone who purchases Uproar between now and January 14, 2001, also gets a free one-year subscription to a service called "My Music." Together, Sprint PCS and Seattle online music site HitHive, are launching this web-based digital music service with an array of features.

Users can take their recorded music collection, and place it in the "music vault" located on the Sprint PCS site. From there, they can create custom playlists, research favorite artists, and store songs from CDs.

"Customers will have two gigabytes of storage, which will give them the ability to store as many as 800 songs," says Sherrer.

Users can then download about an hour of that at a time directly into Uproar (or stream it from the Web site) through their PC. They then listen to the music through specially designed headphones that feature a microphone located on the headphone wires.

So what if you're hoofing it in the park, listening to the new Pearl Jam album and the phone rings? You push a button, pause the music, listen to your caller through the headphones and talk back through the microphone, says Sherrer. When you're through with the call, you hit the button again, and pick up the music track where you left off.

But the Uproar isn't for everyone. Unfortunately, if you're a Mac user, you're not likely to find one of these under your Christmas tree; the service is currently not available to Macintosh OS users. But Sprint plans to release Mac-combatible software in the near future, according to Sherrer.

Meanwhile, Sherrer is quick to point out that My Music users will not be charged for airtime when utilizing the new service.

Tiptoe Through Those Legal Tulips

And how are Sprint PCS and HitHive dodging the MP3 legal minefield? With a little fancy footwork.

For example, after My Music users have transferred a song to Uproar, they have to check it back in on the web site before they can play the songs on a PC.

What's more, the user must use a USB cable to download a song to the player, and can't do it over a wireless connection, so there's no trading MP3's with other My Music users yet. HitHive sees the Uproar offer as the first phase in the evolution of the marriage of music and wireless. The next phase is lurking around the corner. Early in the new year, HitHive will introduce a "loan and borrow" system, where users will be able to sample music they don't yet own.

"'Loan and borrow' is a system that protects the music copyright owners but still allows users to check out songs - one copy at a time - like borrowing a book from the library," says HitHive's VP of Marketing, Bill Bassett.

"From there it's just a short distance to the point at which users, based on their listening choices, will get a pop-up prompt from the appropriate recording company, asking 'Did you like this artist? Would you like to buy this album?' And then it would give them the ability to buy the CD over their wireless," says Basset.

The third phase of the intersection of these two technologies is "download on demand," says Basset. Which means that, when bandwidth and copyright licensing allows it, you will be able to pluck music from the air.

After that comes streaming music on demand, he says. One day, music fanatics will be able to hear whatever they want, wherever they want, whenever they want.

Of course, the billion dollar question is - is there a market out there for this stuff?

According to a study conducted by research firm Cahners In-Stat, worldwide sales of digital audio devices are projected to increase from 2.9 million units this year to 8 million units by 2003.

Nevertheless, products like the MP3 phone are still more novelty than must-have devices, according to Cahner senior analyst Mike Paxton. He points out that even MP3 players by themselves are taking some time to catch on.

"The first generation of these devices are still quite cumbersome, with too many wires, and a prohibitively high price. I believe they're a little ahead of the curve," says Paxton.

Heidi Kriz is a San Francisco-based freelance writer whose work has appeared in Wired, Red Herring, and PC Computing.