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Ericsson has inked a deal with digital music provider Napster to create an online music service it can pitch to mobile phone network operators.

The service will carry the Napster brand and essentially amounts to an upgrade to Ericsson's existing music service. The system supports both over-the-air downloads and transfers made via a PC, and caters for all-you-can-eat subscription and one-off download sales models.

You might not think the networks would be happy with a system that supports PC-hosted downloading - look at all the bother Apple and Motorola got into with their still unreleased iTunes mobile phone - but Napster and Ericsson want to assure them that their Napstericsson business model "accommodates mobile operator participation in all revenue streams".

Unlike Napster's current offerings, which require Windows' in-built DRM technology, the Ericsson service will support other DRM schemes to "work on mobile phones from all major manufacturers that support content protected by digital rights management". That means the Open Mobile Alliance (OMA) DRM scheme, which will start to appear on significant numbers of handsets from Q3. OMA is effectively the mobile phone DRM standard, and the technology favoured by the networks.

Ericsson's move comes 11 months after Apple said it was working with Motorola to put iTunes on the latter's handsets. Then, the plan was to ship a phone that could talk to Apple's iTunes application to transfer songs downloaded from the iTunes Music Store. Originally scheduled to ship in H1 2005, the handset has failed to appear at a number of public events, leading to fears it has been delayed. The first half of the year isn't quite over yet, so Motorola may yet detail the product this month to save face.

The Apple-Motorola deal contrasts with Nokia's tie-in with digital music distributor Loudeye and now Ericsson's Napster deal in its apparent refusal to cater for the demands of network operators. But all three moves are a nod toward the notion that phones will increasingly become a key mobile music platform. That's not to say iPods and other standalone music players are doomed, simply that phones are going to become an alternative platform. There's room for both, but long-term the phone looks like becoming the bigger business opportunity, at least for song downloads.

The Napstericsson service is scheduled to go live in Europe over the next 12 months and will initially be offered to operators in select markets in Europe, Asia, Latin America and North America, the companies said. ®

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