T-Mobile Launches New Music Download Service
By Eric Lin, Mon Jun 28 22:15:00 GMT 2004

T-Mobile is ready to roll out the mobile jukebox service it announced at CeBIT, under the name "Ear Phones."

T-Mobile will begin offering the service to users of five new (or relatively new) handsets, each of which is equipped with a built in music player complying with the Open Mobile Alliance DRM 1 spec. Users of these new handsets can connect to the Jukebox service on T-Mobile's portal to preview and buy the tracks, which are not full songs but 90-120 second "mobile mixes." When a subscriber chooses to buy a track, the server then encodes the song in each handset's preferred format, and sends the track back. Most of these handsets play a format other than mp3, so it is possible for T-Mobile to send a file that can be played back as audio, but not as a ringtone.

Each track will cost Euro or GBP 1.50 and will be locked down to play on one handset. Not only is the length of the track and the device it can be played on limited, Reuters also says users can only store three tracks on their handset. However previous releases have claimed users would be able to have up to 64 tracks, so it's possible this information is incorrect. The service is only launching with 500 tracks, but T-Mobile expects agreements with four of the five major labels to produce a library of 250,000 titles.

At first glance Ear Phones sounds like a classic case of charging more money for less freedom. Songs are shorter, can only be played on one handset, and cost more than full tracks sold online. It's easy to dismiss a service like this, especially when the compatible handsets allow users to play their own music off memory cards or RAM. T-Mobile will need to make special efforts to make their downloads more desirable than what the user can get by just copying an mp3 from his computer.

Whether Ear Phones is a success or not as a music service, it could have a positive impact on licensed audio content. One of the major complaints about ringtunes has been how much the licensing costs and how high that drives the price of the downloads. T-Mobile's mobile mixes actually cost less than their ringtune downloads, and are at the bottom end of the spectrum when it comes to ringtune pricing for European carriers. Since mobile mixes are authorized by the labels, T-Mobile is obviously paying license fees, and yet they've managed to keep the cost down. T-Mobile and other carriers could use this new pricing to manage ringtone fees. Users will also be less likely to buy expensive ringtones when mobile mixes cost less and are longer. The labels and carriers understand that mobile mixes are better protected, which might have positively impacted license fees, but it's not easy to explain that to users. From the users' point of view, T-Mobile has just set a new trend for ringtune and song pricing on mobiles.