Weekly Wrap: Hear the Music
By Carlo Longino, Fri Aug 27 08:00:00 GMT 2004

Mobile music was hot, hot, hot this week, and more...


The week opened with news that Orange was underwriting a new ringtone chart show in the UK. The carrier's linked up with reality-TV producer Endemol (the company behind Big Brother, among others) for the weekly "Orange Playlist" show that will countdown the top tones alongside the best-selling singles and downloads. Orange, Endemol and ITV, the broadcaster, will split revenues from ringtones sold through the show's site, but apart from that, Orange is setting its stall out early to become known as the music carrier -- a distinction that could grow in importance over the coming few years.

Madonna has jumped on the ringtone bandwagon, opening a mobile-content shop connected to her web site. Her management and the company running the shop say it's the first time a musician has set up their own store without the involvement of their record label, but that's likely because the Material Girl is one of the few artists that controls her own catalog. The move does, however, open up some interesting possibilities for the use of mobile phones for celebrities to promote their own personal "brand", making the idea of a celebrity setting up their own MVNO not unthinkable.

This is just the tip of the iceberg when it comes to mobile music, though. The whole industry is abuzz, with carriers excited at the potential sales and equipment manufacturers looking to become the enablers for the business.

Another week, another 3 story: this time the COO of its UK unit says that people that want open Net access on their phones, as opposed to the carrier's walled garden, are "nuts". Insulting customers and potential buyers -- that's something you learn on the first day of management 101. Never mind that it's in the company's best interest to let users have unfettered Net access and to offer high-speed data-only service.

Marketers are still working to figure out how exactly to use mobile devices to meet their needs. One company hopes to use them as a part of customer loyalty programs, replacing keychain fobs and membership cards with smartphone and PDA software, which could alert customers to specials and give them coupons as well. US women's magazine Jane is taking a unique approach, getting readers to snap cameraphone images of ads in the magazine and email them in, promising to send prizes and contest entries. It sounds a bit strange, but it shows a shift in marketers' thinking from seeing mobile as another broadcast push medium to an interactive pull one.

The number of Internet connection methods PC users must deal with can already be a pain, negotiating between Ethernet, phone, Wi-Fi, Bluetooth and cellular data, and only promises to get worse thanks to the myriad wireless standards in the works. Some are suggesting it's time to develop software that coordinates all these technologies and lets the user control their connection with a single interface and seamlessly switch between different networks. Some Wi-Fi aggregators offer connection managers with very basic versions of this functionality, and some 3G cards can handle switching to GPRS and in some cases, Wi-Fi hotspots. But this should be a growth area as users are overwhelmed by the number of networks available to them.

Another concern is of course security, especially for corporate users. The latest virus scares have (pretty pointlessly) heightened fears, and gives IT departments another reason to pooh-pooh mobile data. But Nokia and Pointsec this week said they'd offer encryption software for its smartphones to allay such fears. The software will encode user data -- contacts, messages, e-mail, documents and so on -- with 128-bit encryption.

NTT DoCoMo laid out a strategy this week to boost the number of subscribers to its FOMA 3G network by reducing the cost of handsets to about a third of their current $300 price. DoCoMo is negotiating with foreign suppliers in support of this, but also wants to start offering less feature-filled handsets that will command lower prices, hoping it will spur 2G users to upgrade as well as attracting new users.

Chinese handset vendors look to have peaked, with numbers from June showing they had only 46 percent share of the country's device sales, compared to 49 percent in January. Foreign producers have closed the gap on domestic manufacturers in terms of distribution networks, and have also increased their development and engineering presence in the country in an effort to better and more quickly respond to local tastes and preferences -- Chinese firm's other key advantage.

Handsets with integrated cameras have been popular all around the globe, and now combining the phone photos with location information is creating some compelling apps, whether it be to make photo-based city maps, or to create a sort of travel guide, like the Yellow Arrow app. Users can put stickers with a unique code on things in a handful of cities, then submit a moblog entry describing the location. Visitors can then ping Yellow Arrow with an e-mail with the code, and it sends back the info about the site, with mobile pictures held in a Web database.

Elsewhere on the site this week, Kevin Werbach fires up his crystal ball and says mobile video's future lies in communication rather than entertainment, Douglas Rushkoff reviews media academic Paul Levinson's latest book on mobile phones, and Howard Rheingold brings news of Fused Space, a competition for technologies that energize public space.