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MusicStation arrives, but will we pay for digital music?

Vodafone thinks so

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The Great White Hope of the music business - and many network operators - has arrived in the UK. The music business hopes it will persuade people to start paying for licensed digital music, while operators hope it will persuade people to start using their expensively built, but under-utilised 3G networks.

Vodafone will launch Omnifone's MusicStation service here on three new handsets in time for Christmas. MusicStation offers unlimited downloads, file and playlist "sharing" (we'll explain the quotation marks in a moment) with no additional data charges to the subscriber - all for £1.99 a week. The goal is "any song, anywhere".

MusicStation, which operates out of the old Island Records HQ, has snagged the big four labels and about 30 carriers globally for its service, making it the biggest arrival since iTunes in 2003.

Voda will bundle it with the upgraded, 8GB version of the Nokia N95, Sony Ericsson's W910i and an updated version of Samsung's touch screen & QWERTY phone the F700. It's shunned Nokia's new music flagship the N81, but given the prototype condition of the phone on its first public outing recently, that isn't such a surprise. More importantly, existing Vodafone subscribers will also be able to download the MusicStation software and sign up for a free trial. Omnifone says MusicStation runs on 70 per cent of the world's handsets.

While industry analysts will peg MusicStation as a rival for services such as iTunes Store, Rhapsody or mobile eMusic, the newcomer will really put a much bigger proposition to the test: whether people want to pay for recorded music at all.

They're all really competing with the convenience and rich repertory of unlicensed P2P services - and no licensed digital download service has captured the imagination, or the wallets, of the public. As a consequence, while music has never been so popular, next to nothing is being returned to the creators, producers and distributors. So the music business watches one licensed business whither away, while refusing to licence another.

Because mobile offers easy billing, ubiquity, and the devices and networks are more controlled, it's long been touted as a potential saviour of the music business, and as the best way of competing with free downloads.

Ominous figures from Japan confirm that no one has got it remotely right yet. Japan is closely watched, because of the high penetration of mobile networks, the high degree of socialisation around mobile devices, and its successful history for mobile services. However, last week, the Recording Industry Association of Japan (AIAJ), reported that the volume of licensed downloads had fallen for the first time, down to 111.6m in Q2 from 114.3m.

How could MusicStation succeed where so many others - particularly subscription-based offerings - have failed?

Well, there's no nasty data charge surprises, capping or quotas - since the £1.99 includes all data costs and unlimited downloads. (A £2.99 service runs on a PC or Mac and allows you to browse the catalog and acquire music from a desktop). Unlike eMusic, it has the four major labels and unlike iTunes or Napster, it's genuinely mobile. And unlike Nokia's beta Music Store, it runs on the majority of the world's handsets. But MusicStation's biggest advantage over the networks' own music stores is that it's much easier to use, is cross-carrier, and is very forgiving. So if you lose your handset or change operator, you don't lose your music. The user interface has received a lot of thought, and offers by far the best experience we've seen on a mobile.

As for file and playlist sharing, it's actually encouraged. When one MusicStation phone receives a playlist from another, it's populated over the network.

Because the songs are locked down with DRM, much depends on how Omnifone and the carriers market it. If it's sold as music acquisition, then it has flaws, since your collection disappears when the subscription ends. If it's sold as a "radio" service, then it offers a lot more value: such as caching and user control. Being able to call up any song on demand, anywhere, is certainly an attractive goal.

But we'll soon see whether the public have an appetite for paying for digital music. It's competing with free. ®

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