Walt Mossberg

Sprint Brings Music Direct to Cellphones, But Price Is Too High

The legal music downloading business has taken a big step forward in recent weeks, and I’m not referring to Apple Computer’s much-touted move to sell videos on its iTunes Music Store. I’m talking about something that got much less attention: the launch of the first legal music downloading service you can access right from a cellphone.

Some cellphones already are able to play songs copied from computers, or streamed from an online radio-type service. And cellphone carriers have long sold snippets of songs as ringtones, which can be downloaded onto phones. But the new Sprint Music Store, unveiled by Sprint Nextel a couple of weeks ago, is the first service that allows complete songs to be purchased and downloaded directly from a cellphone, without a computer.

This Sanyo 9000 downloads songs.
This Sanyo 9000 downloads songs.

This is a potentially big deal, because many more people carry cellphones all the time than they do iPods or other portable music players. And they can use their cellphones in places where they can’t easily use a PC. The much-touted Apple-Motorola ROKR phone, introduced earlier this fall, doesn’t let users access the iTunes store.

I have been testing the new Sprint Music Store and found it works well. The user interface is clean and simple, even on a small screen. The downloads, and playing of previews, are very fast over Sprint’s new broadband-class Power Vision network, which is required to use the music store, though it’s deployed in only parts of the country so far. Song playback sounded good on both phones I tested.

Unfortunately, Sprint and the record labels have decided to spoil their breakthrough service by setting a stratospheric new price for the legal download of a single song: $2.50. That’s 2.5 times the 99 cents that Apple and others charge on their online stores for a better-quality version of the very same song. Right now, Sprint is offering the first five downloads free, but starting with the sixth song, the $2.50-a-song price kicks in. The charges show up on your cellphone bill.

Sprint says its higher price is justified by the convenience factor, the ability to buy a song on the go, when the impulse strikes. The company compares this to paying more than usual for milk at an all-night convenience store, or for hot dogs at a ballpark. Also, Sprint contends, there are many people who find PC-based music stores too hard to use, and they will be willing to pay more for something simpler.

I believe something else is at work here: a lethal combination of two industries many consumers believe typically charge too much. One is the bumbling record industry, which has been seeking to raise prices in the fledgling legal downloading market even as it continues to bleed from free, illegal downloading. The other is the cellphone carriers, or, as I like to call them, “the Soviet ministries,” which too often treat their customers as captive and refuse to allow open competition for services they offer over their networks.

These partners in high prices already charge $2.50 for a small clip of a song to be used as a ringtone; so on some level, charging $2.50 for a whole song must seem like a bargain to them. But ringtones require editing, at least, and sometimes must be matched to a particular phone. With full-song downloads, Sprint is entering an established, competitive market where the price has been 99 cents. I could swallow a small convenience surcharge of, maybe, 25 cents, but not a 150% markup.

The high costs don’t stop there. The new music store can be accessed — so far — on only two new high-end phones, from Sanyo and Samsung, which cost more than $200, even after rebates. Even then, if you want to store more than about 32 songs on your phone, you’ll have to spring for a larger memory card, which costs anywhere from $25 to $100. You have to pay at least $15 a month for a data plan that allows you just to access the music store, though you also get other services.

For that kind of money, you’d better really, really, really want to download that new Kenny Chesney song, RIGHT NOW, before you can get to a computer.

Not only that, but the Sprint store imposes more limitations on the use of the songs than Apple does. You can play downloaded songs on only one phone, and the song files can’t be played back on a PC. To play them on a PC, you have to download them again, on the computer, in a different format, though you don’t get charged again for this.

The computer version of the songs can be played only on three PCs (Windows only), and three portable players, but not the most popular and best player, the iPod. Songs bought from Apple can be played on up to five computers and on an unlimited number of iPods.

Oh, and did I mention that Sprint offers only 250,000 songs, for now, compared with Apple’s selection of two million tracks?

Sprint did a good job designing this first mobile music store. It’s a shame that the store’s high prices and overdone restrictions make it impossible for me to recommend it, except for those with deep pockets and little patience.

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