Streaming Audio, Missing The Point
By Carlo Longino, Tue Dec 21 01:00:00 GMT 2004

FM radios in handsets aren't overwhelmingly popular, so why would users pay a monthly fee to listen to streaming audio channels?

US operator Sprint said today it was launching a streaming audio service with Music Choice, a company that provides digital music channels to cable and satellite TV companies. For about $6 a month, users will be able to listen to a number of genre-based channels on their handset, a service the company says is perfect for "a few quick minutes of music".

But while music on mobiles -- even just radio -- represents a significant opportunity for the industry, simply replacing an FM radio with a streamed service isn't the answer, when the mobile platform is a jumping-off point for much more interactive and exciting music-based services.

Offering users choice and control over what they listen to is paramount. With people used to creating their own iTunes playlists based around only the music they like, or using online services like Last.FM or Yahoo!'s Launchcast that offer personalized channels, grouping streams by genre isn't enough. Sprint's had success with another streaming audio service it offers, which lets users listen to commentary of any major-league baseball game through its MobiTV service. These types of streams work because they're tightly targeted, and they feature exclusive content. For a New York Yankees fan that lives in Fargo, North Dakota, it's the only way they can listen to the game away from a wired Internet connection.

Alongside choice and control, there needs to be some measure of interactivity. If a user hears something cool, they should be able to send it to their friends -- a scenario some record labels are already exploring. Services like Sony's StreamMan already let mobile users shape the playlists of its channels, and FM Keitai and Visual Radio take a regular radio broadcast and add interactive services alongside it.

Offering what's essentially radio, but over a streaming cellular connection just won't cut it when the mobile platform is capable of so much more -- yet another example of how simply reformatting existing media to mobile isn't the best way forward. And while the $6 monthly fee gets users close to the magic $10 a month milestone, it's an awful lot to ask them to stump up for a service geared toward "a few quick minutes", especially when it's so similar to something they're used to getting for free.