Going Mobile

Forget about using your computer to download or stream music. The cell phone is the future of music distribution. That is, if we can stop thinking of mobile phones as, well, phones.

Instead, we should think of cell phones as Web-enabled pocket computers capable of many of the chores we usually reserve for desktop machines and laptops. The devices just happen to include phone functionality.

Case in point is Napster. The Best Buy-owned online music service recently added “mobile” to its résumé, creating a dedicated Web site – m.napster.com – that gives customers on the go the ability to browse, search, preview and use their credits to download tracks from Napster’s 9 million-plus song inventory via their handhelds.

Napster’s new mobile service doesn’t stream music to handhelds. When on-demand streaming to mobile devices becomes the norm, it will be time to unload your stock in CD manufacturing companies as music stored on physical media goes the way of the 8-track tape and 78 rpm records.

While purists will insist on owning music on physical media, most consumers will probably opt for music from the cloud, meaning they won’t actually hold media in their hands but will connect with a server to hear their favorite tunes.

Many mobile devices can jack into home and car stereos. This is great for owners of personal music players and music-enabled cell phones because they can connect their mobiles to other audio systems, eliminating the need for CDs.

And streaming to mobiles would take that concept one step further. Instead of buying CDs, ripping them and transferring the songs to your various devices, all you need do is connect to your favorite streaming service via your mobile, plug that mobile into your audio system and rock away the day. Who needs physical CDs when you can just tell your mobile device to play whatever your heart desires, from 1930s Bing Crosby recordings to the latest Pearl Jam album?

Napster acknowledged this in a rather indirect way when it announced its new mobile Web page, sending out an additional announcement to media outlets explaining why it hasn’t yet released an iPhone app. Or, for that matter, an application for any smartphone.

In its release addendum, Napster said one of the most common questions the company receives is when it will offer an iPhone app. While Napster states that it has created an app that streams as well as downloads, the company also mentions something else about record labels, licensing and mobile phones that hasn’t received much coverage.

“However, due to the high licensing fees for streaming to a mobile phone,” the company noted, “Napster has not yet submitted the iPhone app to Apple for approval or attempted to bring the application to market.”

High licensing fees for streaming to mobiles? This may be one area where the recording industry really is a couple of steps ahead of the digital curve. If you can receive high fidelity streams on-demand via your cell phone, you would never need to buy a physical CD again. No wonder licensing for on-demand streaming music to mobiles costs more than for desktops.

Of course, music streaming applications are available for the iPhone and other smartphones, but most are Internet radio-oriented and don’t provide songs on-demand.

One on-demand streaming service available for iPhone is Spotify. However, the U.K.-based service is only available in a small number of countries and has yet to debut in the U.S. Other streamers, most notably Real Networks-owned Rhapsody, are still waiting for Apple approval before they go the iPhone route. But that day will come – eventually.

And when it does you’ll have a device in your pocket capable of playing any song at any time, either as a standalone device or as a component for a larger entertainment system. And when that day comes, you’ll never need to touch a CD again.

Of course, you’ll still be able to use that same device for making phone calls, proving that some things never change.

Nokia Won’t Come With Music ‘Til Next Year

It’s starting to look as if Nokia will delay the U.S. launch of its “Comes With Music” service, which bundles a year’s worth or more of songs with select mobile handsets, until 2010.

Nokia’s “Comes With Music” offering enables users to download as many copy-protected songs as they like for a specified period of time after purchasing select Nokia mobiles. According to Forbes, a Nokia representative confirmed the promotion won’t roll out until next year, but did not offer any reason for the delay.

“Comes With Music” debuted in England in late 2008, and is now up to 10 countries, including Brazil and Singapore, in the fold. Forbes speculates that the delay in bringing the service to the U.S. “may indicate reception has been pretty lukewarm.”

“‘Comes With Music’ has been below expectations in developed markets, though Nokia is having more success in emerging markets,” said Forrester Research analyst Mark Mulligan in the Forbes article. “In Western Europe and specifically Great Britain, Nokia has been hindered by not having a strong operator route to market.”

Nokia also doesn’t command the cell phone market like in years past. According to Forbes, Nokia handsets make up only about 7 percent of the U.S. market where Apple’s iPhone and Research In Motion’s Blackberry are the current buzz brands.

What’s more, other handset manufacturers are also planning similar music bundles for their mobiles, making “Comes With Music” not as special as it once sounded.

Skype For The Taking

Online auction company eBay has sold most of its share in Skype to private investors, retaining only a small portion of the Internet long-distance phone service.

The deal calls for eBay to trade a 65 percent stake in Skype to a group of private investment funds for $1.9 billion in cash and $125 million to be paid later. The investment group acquiring the lion’s share of Skype includes Netscape cofounder Marc Andreessen and former Skype board members Danny Rimer and Mike Vopi. Vopi is the former CEO of online video site Joost, which was founded by Skype creators Niklas Zennström and Janus Friis.

If you ever questioned why eBay ever wanted Skype in the first place, you’re not the only one. EBay’s 2005 acquisition, which cost the auction company $2.6 billion plus $530 million paid to Skype investors in 2007, left many industry watchers wondering how eBay would fit the service into its own properties, which also include online payment system PayPal.

Turns out it wasn’t that great a fit. In 2007 eBay took a $900 milllion charge to write down Skype’s value.

EBay may have picked the perfect week to sell off a heapin’ hunk of Skype. Less than 24 hours after the acquisition was announced, Internet security companies reported a virus designed to tap into Skype calls.

The virus, which security firm Symantec dubbed the first “wiretap Trojan,” connects not with the Skype system itself but with the portion of the Windows OS that handles audio processing, allowing it to intercept all audio from Skype before it’s encrypted. The audio is then saved as MP3 files that can be directed to computers operated by shady characters.

It’s more interesting than dangerous,” said Symantec Security Response director Kevin Haley. “It’s an espionage tool. That’s its clear purpose. It’s not practical for any type of broad-based attacks.”