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Killing an iPod: harder than it looks?

Music phones unnatural, as born killers go...

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3GSM So when do mobile phones really kill iPods? Not before people stop saying 'iPod killer', certainly (because saying it is more of a death wish than the sincerest form of flattery), but not until handset manufacturers figure out pricing, functionality, the target market and its habits. Which is easier said than done, but grasping that just saying 'and it plays music' isn't good enough is a start.

Sendo's X2 is one of the latest stabs at the category. Sendo did not say 'iPod killer', in our hearing at least, but does say "Music Phone." So yes, it plays music. The company is particularly keen to demonstrate the quality of the sound reproduction, which is maybe arguable as a benefit, considering much of the target market has either already destroyed its eardrums and/or listens to mobile music under pretty hostile conditions, but if it's going to take off it's probably price and functionality that's going to do the trick.

Talks are under way, but no network had been signed off at the time of 3GSM. A pay as you go X2, however, could go for £90 or thereabouts. Without contract you're maybe talking a minimum of £130, and with contract, free. So it's by no means the cheapest entry level phone poverty-stricken yoof can get (spec-wise, it isn't an entry-level phone), but if the music side is deemed a draw by the target market, then you can maybe call it a good deal. Alongside the music capability it's triband GSM/GPRS, has a 1.3 megapixel camera, 32Mb free memory expandable via miniSD cards, and Bluetooth and USB connectivity, so overall it looks a pretty good deal, despite the indications from the projected pricing that it's not intended to have a massive operator subsidy built into the deal.

As regards functionality of the music capability, there's an element of the obvious here that usually escapes the manufacturers of multipurpose devices. Sendo has figured out that less is more to the extent that you just need to switch on and press play, which is, if you'll pardon the expression, a start. Beyond that, though, you can consider how the nature of the host device limits the designers' ability to produce anything you could call a no-compromise music player; it's a phone, it has a phone keyboard and therefore you face the hard choice of whether you add music player-specific buttons, and if so how many, or whether you go for mainly on-screen controls using the standard phone keyboard. The latter's fine and allows you to carry it in your shirt pocket providing your eyes are on stalks, right?

Too many buttons, confusion, too few, maybe too much compromise. If you're starting with a phone, then you clearly need to have the standard phone key configuration (manufacturers make sporadic attempts to break out of this, but we all know what happens when they try), and how, on top of this, you do a full-function music player that can compete with dedicated devices on equal terms is entirely non-obvious. But how about the other way around?

The Register (you may have noticed) is not entirely convinced that the public in general and yoof in particular is going to flock to DRM-rich paid-for wireless music services, but if one suspends disbelief sufficiently to imagine that there is a killer product in there, its essence is the wireless-playing device combination. So while something sold as a phone had ruddy well better function as a decent phone, something pitched primarily as a music player could quite acceptably have music information and purchase as the primary purpose of the wireless capability, with a bit of texting and voice as 'free' extras. Which maybe just gets you one of those weird-shaped things from Nokia that nobody much loves. But maybe the way to play it is for a non phone company with a good brand (er, Apple?) to build and badge it, the point here being that if a phone company puts one out people will just call it a weird phone.

Not, of course, that we're saying that phones with a music capability are doomed, as such. This capability is now becoming an essential extra, and being good at it will help, alongside other things, sell phones. And it'll probably hurt generic cheap MP3 players, if there are any unhurt ones left to hurt. But we reckon Apple's safe for a while yet. ®

3GSM 2005

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