London-based company Omnifone today announced the launch of MusicStation Max -- a worldwide mobile music download service that offers 'free' unlimited downloads of music from the four major labels (Sony BMG, Universal, EMI and Warner), directly to mobile phones over the air. In the UK, Omnifone will offer a catalogue of 1.5 million tracks -- a solid figure, but not one that will cover the entire catalogue of each major label.
The service will launch in the first half of this year with handsets manufactured by LG. Participating mobile networks will offer the special MusicStation Max phones, and will offer service plans that include an unlimited data plan to be used for music downloads. And yes, this lets users download, listen to and store an unlimited number of tracks from all four major music labels, on their mobile phone. The cost of the unlimited plan may be a part of the handset's initial cost, or may be added on to a monthly fee. This is so far unclear, and an Omnifone spokesperson wouldn't comment on pricing or even whether any deals had been struck with phone networks. But there's something more interesting.
Each MusicStation Max phone comes with PC and Mac software that's connected to your phone contract. Every time you download a song to your phone, the same song is downloaded to your computer for playback through your PC speakers. Yes, it's DRMed, so no transferring to iPods, CDs or other handsets. We weren't able to wrangle any details regarding whether you'll be able to play files back on a player of your choice. We were told these PC downloads will be at a higher bit rate than those downloaded on a phone though, but specific codec details weren't disclosed. It's likely to be a part of Microsoft's PlayReady service, announced at 3GSM last year.
After the phone's contract is up, users can continue to play songs downloaded to their handsets and computers already, or purchase a new handset in order to continue accessing new music.
It's easy to be sceptical about an arrangement such as this, and rightly so. But Nokia's 'Comes With Music' project with Universal is certainly overshadowed by MusicStation's deals with every major label.
But the other angle to look at is how this works financially. Here's how: you pay the operator for a handset or contract. A portion of this will certainly be passed to Omnifone for the music service. But the operator, on top of the usual contract revenue, gets to charge for unlimited data, therefore taking revenue as a result of its tie-in with Omnifone. On the surface this means free music, legally, with everyone getting paid. So far, so good.
The success of this project, however, will depend on certain factors. Firstly, the cost to the end user. It's almost certain that the handset or contract will be more expensive with the MusicStation service than an identical one without. This may be harder to determine if the phones supplied are exclusively available to MusicStation Max customers. If the customer sees an identical phone without the unlimited downloads being cheaper, they'll see this as a subscription service -- which it sort of is -- and not a free-for-all.
The other issue is DRM. But of course it would be. The major labels are competing with the true free-for-all of BitTorrent and other P2P services, and any customer who's used to pirating music that plays on an iPod will be unlikely to buy into a service that gives them less of a selection, especially when that limited selection won't play on their MP3 player.
But could piracy and legal mobile downloads exist side-by-side? It's certainly true that the average LimeWire user -- hell, even advanced LimeWire users -- are not pirating using a mobile phone, and the idea of legal downloads while they're on the bus might just appeal. The majors have nothing to lose here since the music's being pirated anyway, and the ease of free and legal downloads to a portable device may steer some to consider other legal downloads (though we admit these people will be a minority).
Either way, it'll be interesting to see how this pans out. It's a limited catalogue at launch, handset ranges will initially be small and it's likely that some customers (us included) won't see the deal as 'free unlimited downloads', but rather unlimited downloads for a nominal, bundled fee. But if it's easy, if the phones are good, if the catalogue is decent and the cost is all but transparent, it stands some chance.
We just hope it doesn't turn out to be another Qtrax debacle. -Nate Lanxon