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Sony Ericsson presses play on Play Now music services

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Sony Ericsson has updated its music, and content, offering with a piecemeal service direct from the manufacturer, and a subscription service that will only be available via network operators.

Both variations on the service will initially be available on the Walkman W902 handset, with support for the full range of SE handsets promised, though the subscription service will rely on local operator support. In order to maximise the confusion, both services come under the Play Now brand, with Play Now Arena offering individual tracks bought direct from Sony Ericsson without DRM, while Play Now Plus offers a subscription bought from the operator with unlimited downloads, but lots of DRM to protect the content.

The product launch featured the now familiar parade of record-company executives pledging their support to the service - increasingly looking like drowning men begging the mobile phone companies for a life line, but still with enough power to demand that unlimited downloads come with a caveat.

Punters who don't keep up the payments on their Play Now Plus collection, will get to download their favourite hundred tracks without the accompanying DRM, but the rest of their collection will vanish along with the bills.

SE is making much of delivering direct to the mobile phone, rather than transferring tracks from a computer, which is fine if your data package allows it and your operator offers sufficient speed. For Play Now Arena, the songs are in MP3 format, so they'll play on any computer. But for Play Now Plus, punters will need to use the special playback software from Omnifone, which is Windows only, at least for the moment.

Play Now Arena has already been launched in some Nordic countries, and will be spreading across Europe - including the UK - in 2008. Play Now Plus is to be launched by Telenor Sweden in the next few weeks as a bundle with the handset and six months' free subscription.

With a commercial launch only a few weeks off you'd expect the product to be finished, but when challenged with some of the more complex parts of the user experience - such as what happens when the phone memory is full - executives told us they were still working on that, so there are obviously still some wrinkles to be smoothed out.

The two approaches highlight the stark contrast in how mobile phone manufacturers see themselves: Play Now Arena shows how they aspire to be a service delivery company, having a direct billing relationship with the customer and treating the network operator as no more than a bit-pipe. Play Now Plus, on the other hand, puts the power in the hands of the operator making music-services into another network infrastructure component that Sony Ericsson can provide.

The company reckons that each model will work in different countries, implying that wherever network operators have sufficient power then Play Now Plus will be the push, but where the operator can be bypassed then Play Now Arena is the mechanism that Sony Ericsson will adopt.

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