“It’s not a matter of if, it’s a matter of when.”

April 20, 2005


This quote comes from Scott Horn of Microsoft. He was speaking about whether or not wireless phones will become the primary platform for carrying around music. But this is not the only vision for portable music. Which vision of mobile music will prevail?

Apple and Motorola are banking on the computer-centric vision. While the iPod is a great device, it is hardly a “platform” (let alone a mobile platform). It does not include classic bi-directional communication capabilities. It does not transmit. It is a “receiver” and a player. But it will need to become far more. The iPod first needs to have the capability to receive songs “on the fly.” Currently, new songs are only accessible by attaching to your computer – or by using esoteric specialty devices Similarly, there is no means to “share” (i.e., send) your songs/playlists with friends without using a computer. Again, specialty vendors are stepping in (e.g., Griffin’s iTrip). But the base platform has no wireless/mobility sense to it.

Over the past year, there have been rumors about something called the iPhone (iPod + wireless phone). Pictures exist for the iPhone (http://appleinsider.com/article.php?id=816). Unfortunately, the current news for the iPhone is not good. According to Apple Insider (http://www.appleinsider.com/article.php?id=1010) both Verizon and Sprint have apparently declined to launch products with the Apple/Motorola product. In my view, the iPod will remain a niche (albeit hellishly profitable) unitl it embraces communications capabilities as part of its core capabilities. Indeed, something as simple as inclusion of 802.11 capabilities would be fantastic. But for now, iPod enthusiasts must roll their own or wait upon the uncertainty of products from technology vendors.

On the other hand, wireless phone carriers (and Microsoft?) are focusing upon a “telephone-centric” vision. While many carriers have toyed with the idea of iPod-based phones, Business Week believes that the phone companies will release their own products (http://yahoo.businessweek.com/magazine/content/05_17/b3930001.htm). These new products will fuse compute platforms into telephone form factors. BTW, this is exactly what the carriers and phone manufacturers have done with digital photography. The “mobile” view is simple. We have a platform that is (by its very nature) “connected.” We can both send and receive data. And MP3 encoders (like CCD camera chips) can easily be fitted onto the “airframe” of the phone. Indeed, Sanyo already has a really cool product in the MM5600 phone.

While the phone carriers have capable platforms, they don’t have the same measure of “buzz” (or marketing savvy) that Apple has demonstrated with the iPod. But I think that’s where Microsoft comes in.

But what is Microsoft’s play in this game? First, Microsoft is deeply invested in SmartPhone technology. Why? Because it’s another platform whereby Windows can be licensed. Second, Microsoft has always been in competition with Apple. It’s a Cain v. Abel kind of thing. Now that Apple is successful in music, Microsoft wants to get in on the market. And since they have a mobile platform with connectivity (i.e., the SmartPhone), they have a field upon which they can aggessively compete with Apple/Motorola.

What they don’t have is a retail store/presence to exploit. Therefore, I am wondering if Microsoft might crack open the war chest just a bit. If I were building a strategy, I would be looking to buy Real or MusicMatch. Real has appeal – especially because its acquisition would finally eliminate the threatened lawsuits. But the Real brand has lost so much traction, it may not meet the need for a functioning store. Couple this with the Crossfader emphasis and I’m starting to see some real movement – and it’s not in the “MSN Music” brand.

In any event, this will be fun! I can’t wait to see what comes next. In the end, it will mean more capability in the hands of the consumer. And this is what it’s all about.

Note – I work for a wireless phone provider. However, I do not work on platform development. Hence, I am not providing any “inside” information. Just casual insights from someone on the inside.




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