Music to O2's Ears
By Eric Lin, Tue Nov 25 23:30:00 GMT 2003

Today O2 has launched Europe's first over-the-air music download service. O2 Music combines an online download library with a service-specific music player for a DRM-secured track purchasing, playback and storage.

The service starts with an online library of AAC encoded tracks, including weekly top-ten playlists from MTV Europe. To sample, purchase and download tracks, users connect the player to their mobile phone using either a cable or IR. Once connected to the O2 Music server, users can browse the library, stream a 30 second sample of tracks and purchase songs.

Instead of using their mobile, users browse and buy via an interface on the playback device itself. O2 music works much like the iTunes music store or other new services, however it sounds like it will cost more and users will get less. Tracks will cost about GBP 1.50 per song according to O2, most US music stores charge less than $1 per track. O2 also does not provide any means to download or play tracks on desktop computers, limiting the usefulness of purchased tracks.

More doubts about the value of O2 Music's download arise with their statement that you can fit about 64 songs on the 64 MB SD card included with the player. Even though songs are encoded in AAC, 1 MB per song is still very low quality. Certainly not what most digital music addicts are accustomed to. Will users really pay more to buy and to download (Don't forget you'll be paying GPRS charges too.) a track with inferior sound quality?

If they run out of space, users can transfer songs from the player to a PC for storage or to copy them to a new card, but there is no mention of a desktop player. If the tracks really do have a poor sample rate, that may be intentional, even if DRM could be transferred. For better quality, users can transfer their own mp3 and AAC files from the computer to the player as well.

O2 Music shows forward thinking. Radio and mp3 playback on advanced handsets is a popular feature, and combining this with a download service is a smart idea. But there are several critical issues that O2 will need to resolve to prevent failure. Since the service requires a separate music player, an expensive GBP 100 music player at that, O2 is asking to compete with the iPod, Rio and other devices that offer more storage and greater selection. O2 obviously does not have the muscle to negotiate decent fees, like Apple or BuyMusic and to charge for network use on top of those fees will probably price tracks out of the hands of those most likely to download them. Finally the fact that the network speed limits file size, and thus the encoding quality of the tracks is a major disadvantage compared to the near cd sound of other download options Many other services have limited playback usage DRM, so that shouldn't really be a factor.