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Using MusicFone

Despite spending only a limited time in pre-launch briefings with MusicStation, it's evident to us that Omnifone has delivered its promise to create a fast, simple and attractive music player. The service uses parallel downloading to speed up the process, so it downloads material in the background. It looks and feels the same even if you're using a basic feature phone.

Another attractive feature is that if your phone is stolen, you retrieve all your state information - the music as well as metadata like playlists and news feeds - as soon as you're up and running with the replacement.

However, Omnifone faces a challenge in a market turned off digital music by DRM. Lewis didn't disagree that DRM was a hindrance - he described it as "a poo experience for customers" and a sign of a market that hadn't grown up.

It isn't clear yet to us whether MusicStation music expires with your subscription, but time-bombed subscription services, despite some clever marketing, have met with only much success on the PC. Will they on mobile?

In truth, no one knows yet. For the past century, radio has been the traditional vehicle for music discovery and physical product has been the primary means by which recording companies monetize their assets. Now things are blurring in lots of interesting ways.

For example, we don't think of MySpace as an on-demand radio station, but that's really what it is.

The challenge for Omnifone is persuading us that rather taking something away we already had, it's giving us something we didn't have before - that being "everything" and "everywhere".

(People deeply resent a technological restriction when it raises obstacles, but ignore it completely when the value is tangible).

So much depends on how well Omnifone fulfills that ambitious promise. The "everywhere" part is pretty much solved in Europe, where ubiquitous 3G networks have all but snuffed out the business case for Wi-Fi. The "everything" part of the proposition, however, needs quite a bit more work.

The indies provide as much as 40 per cent of the world's music, and Omnifone not only needs to get this repertory signed up fast, but it also needs to build up the kind of rich discovery service that eMusic provides today. This is something that isn't top-down (big label A&R chart-driven) nor bottom up (fan lists) but depends on something in between, something that hinges on editorial expertise. Clever, but not too clever.

Viewed as a method of music acquisition, Omnifone may well prove to struggle like Napster. But as an on-demand radio service, then £1.99 may prove to be an attractive price point for music discovery - particularly with punters who think nothing of spending £5 to acquire a tribal emblem, in the form of a DRMed, 30-second ringtone. And the ringtone market generates more revenue every few months than Apple's iTunes has managed in four years.

Alas, one unfortunate aspect about subscription services is that once you've "got" something, everyone else has got it too. On the other hand, even the dimmest bulbs at the world's mobile network operators realize the £5 ringtone party is drawing to a close. ®

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