It's not mobile music, it's just music

I happened to get an eMusic email a few days ago (announcing new releases in the alternative/punk category) and noticed a link to a special offer for AT&T Mobile subscribers, with the promise that You could win 6 months of free AT&T mobile service. I recently became an AT&T subscriber (when I bought an iPhone), so this sounded intriguing and I clicked on the link. It turned out to be a sweepstakes tied to a trial offer for eMusic Mobile, and isn’t even applicable to me because eMusic Mobile doesn’t work with iPhones.

But before clicking away I noticed the pricing: $7.49 per month for five tracks. Yowza, that’s almost $1.50 per track! That’s a pretty high price from a company that’s perhaps best known as a discount outlet for music. I can only conclude that this is just standard practice in the so-called mobile music market (or, as it’s often called by cognoscenti, the OTA or over-the-air download market). Sure enough, looking at Verizon’s V CAST Music with Rhapsody offering we see that it costs $1.99 to buy a song and have it downloaded directly to your phone, vs. $0.99 to buy it on your PC and then sync it to your phone.

I guess the underlying rationale is that users are willing to pay extra for the convenience of downloading directly to their phones, just as they’re willing to pay extra for the convenience of buying a song already ready for use as a ringtone, as opposed to making their own ringtones from an MP3. I can understand this model for ringtones (where I think convenience is worth paying for), but frankly the traditional OTA business model is a business model that is rapidly becoming obsolete.

When I use my iPhone, there’s no real difference in what I can do over the AT&T 3G network vs. a WiFi network; I’m just using the Internet and the web. Well, there is at least one difference: When I’m on WiFi I can buy music through the iTunes Wi-Fi Music Store, but there is no corresponding iTunes 3G Music Store I can use when I’m using the AT&T cellular network. This, of course, is a crock—there’s no technical reason why Apple can’t offer the iTunes Store over the AT&T network, it’s just a restriction imposed on Apple by AT&T, either due to existing OTA-related contracts or to protect the OTA business model generally.

The only reason an absurdity like this can continue is because the iPhone is a proprietary device, and Apple and AT&T can use that proprietary nature to enforce arbitrary restrictions on customers’ use of the iPhone. However over time as more open devices like Android become more popular, and Internet access from mobile phones becomes more like Internet access from PCs, that situation will likely change, if not for Apple then for others. For example, one can imagine a Songbird-like (or perhaps even Songbird-derived) open media player and library manager on a mobile phone, through which one could download and play MP3 tracks purchased through the standard eMusic web site.

To paraphrase a blog post by Jay Sullivan of Mozilla, users don’t want the mobile Web, they want the real Web on mobile devices. Similarly users of mobile phones and related devices can look forward to someday moving from mobile music to just plain music, and from eMusic Mobile to the same old eMusic we know and love.