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Mobiles challenge iPod hegemony

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"Hello, yes, I'm on the train. We're just about to go into a tunnel... hello? Hello?"

Now that we've sorted out whether anyone will want to download music onto their mobile while travelling, let's move on to the meatier issue: are people going to use them in the manner of iPods to listen to music, and thus replace that and other digital music players - so that our phones become not just machines for making calls and sending texts, but also calendars, address/phone books, stopwatches, video players and music players?

More importantly, will mobile phones turn out to be the iPod-killers that the rest of the music player industry (and some of the music industry) has wished for? Or are they going to remain stuck in the slow lane of the user experience?

The argument trotted out by the mobile phone makers and operators is always the same. Here it is, from Martin Higginson, chief executive of Monstermob, a mobile entertainment company (means: ringtone seller, and would-be more) from Lancaster.

"I think there will always be an iPod, but the fact is there are 1.6bn mobile handsets around the world and only 16m iPods," Mr Higginson told the FT. Well, more precisely, thus far Apple has sold more than 22 million iPods, and if you add rivals' sales you get roughly 30 million MP3 players shipped since their introduction about five years ago. Compare that to the number of people with a mobile phone: close to two billion. Hmm, 30 million vs two billion - who would you think had better odds?

Mr Higginson reckons Monstermob, with a new "Jukebox" service that will let people download an unlimited number of tracks to their phones for just £3 per week, is "on the cusp of regenerating the singles market.. People just don't buy singles any more because a CD singles costs £3. But if you could buy the single easily over the phone for a few pence, they would do it."

Or, as Ed Zander, chief executive of mobile maker Motorola, so charmingly put it, "Screw the [iPod] Nano. What the hell does the nano do? Who listens to 1,000 songs? People are going to want devices that do more than just play music, something that can be seen in many other countries with more advanced mobile phone networks and savvy users." He later said he was being ironic, because someone had kept asking about the Nano, when he wanted to talk about the Motorola ROKR.

Yes, you know, the ROKR - it can store 100 songs, has an iTunes client written by Apple. Oh, come on, have you been living under a rock?

So who will speak up against this proposition? Step forward Apple vice-president and head of the iPod division, Jon Rubenstein. He made his own comment on "converged" devices to the Berliner Zeitung [translation back from German courtesy of babelfish, which charmingly calls him "Ruby Stone"]: "I call it the grand combination theory. Many companies believe in it, but I don't. Look around your kitchen. Do you have a toaster that also brews coffee? There is no such combined device, because it would not do anything better than an individual toaster or coffee machine," Rubenstein argued. "It works the same way with the iPod, the digital camera or mobile phone: it is important to have specialized devices."

However Rubenstein then admits that the biggest manufacturer of digital cameras is Nokia - and insists (despite growing evidence to the contrary) that "most people would still rather take a photo with their digital camera than their mobile phone. And there's a simple reason: digital cameras simply make better pictures."

Yes, well, that's photos. We're trying to talk music. But you know what? The convergence argument is everywhere. You can make it about any function that can be programmed into a phone. Is a mobile phone with an inbuilt phone/address book better than a separate mobile and, say, Palm Pilot? Well, sort of yes, sort of no - if you have more than a couple of hundred contacts, you'll need the Palm. Is a mobile with inbuilt global positioning better than a mobile and a GPS? Maybe; though if you're an orienteer, you'll probably want the precision of a separate handheld. Is the stopwatch on your phone any use for timing races? And does that matter?

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