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Napster tunes into mobile ringtones

Even as parent Roxio's stock is downgraded

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Napster is to enter the mobile phone ringtone market next year, launching an own-brand service on the back of mobile content delivery company Dwango Mobile.

The announcement comes after US market watcher PJ McNealy of American Technology Research (ATR) downgraded parent company Roxio's stock from Hold to Sell.

The Dwango deal will see the formation next year of Napster Mobile, a service pitched at North American consumers, initially selling ringtones, but presumably with music downloads in mind when the bandwidth's there to make it practical.

The more ringtones punters buy through the Napster-branded service, the more points they earn which can be used to offset the cost of PC- or music player-based track downloads. The terms of the deal were not disclosed, so it's not yet clear to what extent the deal will earn Napster revenue directly or whether it's more about getting mobile phone owners to buy song downloads or subscriptions from the company.

Revenue is one of ATR's concerns. In a report to investors, McNealy said parent company's Roxio's revenue forecasts did not justify the company's high share price, which was yesterday trading for almost $10, but closed at $8.67. Given the company's likely revenue expectations going forward, which will see its income come almost entirely from Napster, "we believe that ROXI's valuation is now too high... for a business that has not demonstrated profitability or tremendous growth rates", McNealy said.

Napster's - and thus Roxio's - performance ultimately depends upon paying-user numbers, something the company has to date been unwilling to put a figure to. Getting the number up in order to increase revenues to the point at which its current share price is justified will require gaining many more customers to buy into Napster's high margin subscription services. It's efforts to do so "have been limited by the number of devices that support the service and a lack of consumer understanding about why they should pay nearly $180 per year for access to music", McNealy said.

If BestBuy's promotional plans for Napster kick in as planned, and the number of compatible devices in use rises thanks to the Holiday sales period, Napster may be able to show solid revenue growth. But whether it will be enough to drive sales to four times the $35-40m it expects to record in the year to 31 March, FY2005, in order to justify Roxio's share price on the back of anticipated FY2006 revenues, remains to be seen. ®

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