Nokia Enters Music Cell Phone Fray with N91 Model

Mobile handset giant Nokia this week officially joined the music phone race whereby technology companies are hoping to produce hits by combining mobile phones with iPod-type music players.

Nokia, which enters the fray with its N91 handset featuring a 4 GB hard drive and room for 3,000 songs, said its device will offer users a connected music device that features over-the-air access to operator music stores.

Analysts said efforts such as Nokia’s — as well as that from Motorola, which has partnered with mobile music leader Apple and its iPod/iTunes — represent a mix of technology and business strategy. Although there is likely some appeal for the music phones, which nearly all handset manufacturers are working on, it will be difficult to find the right product, price and service model that has mass appeal, Yankee Group analyst John Jackson told TechNewsWorld.

“One interesting thing about the rumored iPhone device is that it represents multiple brands and multiple business models,” he said, referring to Motorola’s yet-to-be-unveiled model. “Obviously, it has the potential to capture the cachet of iPod, but at the same time, the go-to-market strategies of multiple parties need to be aligned to make that happen, which is a difficult thing.”

Feature-Filled Phones

For its part, Nokia, calling the new, music-optimized N91 a “connected mobile jukebox,” highlighted the device’s capacity and connectivity, indicating it could deliver more than 12 hours of playback via headset or accessory headphones and speakers. Supporting MP3, M4A, AAC and WMA digital music formats, the music phone can connect to other PCs, the Internet, and other N91 handsets through a variety of connections including WCDMA, wireless local area network (WLAN) and Bluetooth wireless, Nokia said.

With standard mobile phone functions, a 2-megapixel camera, e-mail, browser and video support, the N91 will allow users to purchase and download music through wireless operator services and manage collections and playlists, which can also be shared.

“The Nokia N91 delivers both a fantastic music experience and cutting edge phone features,” said a statement from Nokia music vice president Jonas Geust.

Betting on Business Model

Yankee’s Jackson said despite some past failures at mixing music and other media with mobile phones — Nokia’s lackluster NGage phone and gaming device, for example — all of the major handset makers and wireless carriers are gearing up to sell and support music phones.

“It’s a manifestation of what you can expect much more of as the market matures and demands less segregation [among devices],” he said of the N91. “On the device roadmaps of every vendor, we see this.”

The analyst said creating the hardware devices themselves does not present a major barrier to service adoption. Business model and hitting the right market sweet spot are what represents the biggest challenges, according to Jackson.

DataComm president Ira Brodsky told TechNewsWorld the music phone is a natural fit for the mass market, but he stressed the importance of getting the device and service model right for consumers, who are notoriously finicky about handsets.

While he called music phones proof that third-generation wireless or 3G had finally, truly arrived, Brodsky questioned whether there was the network capacity to support users if they were to popularize a music phone device and service.

“I think there definitely is a business model they can succeed with,” he said. “The challenge is providing the right device and service that works right. It’s amazing how hard it can be, especially when engineers are willing to put up with something that consumers will not.”

Carriers Confused

Gartner analyst Michael King indicated that the idea of a mobile music platform in a phone that the user takes everywhere makes sense, but there are still a number of questions around the download and distribution model for music phones.

“The carriers haven’t figured out what role to play,” King told TechNewsWorld. He said it is those companies that will ultimately shape the business models and services around music phones.

King, who questioned whether Nokia could maintain its well known durability in a music phone with a hard drive, added that mobile phones will be carrying and playing tunes, but will not necessarily be the primary device for doing so.

“I do think, in the long term, phones will become a channel for musical content, but I seriously doubt that it will ever be the main channel for music,” he said.

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