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Behind Cingular's music strategy

Cingular's new music service partners with Napster to deliver music to its phones

Cingular Wireless finally jumped on the music train today with its launch of Cingular Music, a music subscription application that partners with several popular online services, including Napster. Cingular is the largest U.S. wireless carrier, but it has lagged behind Sprint and Verizon Wireless in term of offering a music service, though has offered several music-friendly mobile phones, such as the LG CU500.

Instead of operating its own store, as Sprint and Verizon do, Cingular hopes it set itself apart by partnering with independent music services such as Napster to Go, Yahoo Music, and eMusic. Cingular Music subscribers can buy music directly from those partners, rather from the carrier itself. The service should go live on November 6.

Cingular Music's pricing scheme is another clear differentiator, and I suspect it may be the juice that Cingular needs to lap its competitors. If using Napster, Cingular Music subscribers pay the normal Napster To Go subscription fee of $14.95 per month, allowing them to download songs to their PC and transfer the songs to their phone using a cable. From their phones, subscribers also can access a new service called Napster Mobile, which would allow them to preview and purchase tracks. Songs cost just $0.99, far cheaper than Sprint's maximum fee of $2.50 per track and Verizon's charge of $1.99. Of course, there is a big catch, at least for the moment.

Songs purchased from your phone will download only to your PC and can later be transferred to the phone. Yes, that's kind of ridiculous, but we expect Cingular to activate mobile downloads in the near future, however. A Yahoo Music subscription costs $11.99 per month but with no additional mobile download fees, while eMusic offers specialized content for Sony Ericsson Walkman phones, including the W810i or the W300i.

Cingular Music will offer access to 25 XM Satellite radio channels for $8.99 per month and a song ID service for subscribers' phones.

As part of the announcement, Cingular unveiled a new handset, the Cingular Sync. Also known as the Samsung SGH-A707 the Sync comes in a slim, flip-phone design and offers a 2-megapixel camera, a digital music player (of course), support for the 3.5G carrier's HSDPA network, and (happily) stereo Bluetooth. The phone should be available November 6 for $49 with service. The CU500, the Cingular 3125, and the aforementioned Sony Ericsson also will support the service.

Overall, Cingular Music looks quite promising, and I think it's a bold and welcome move after Cingular's previous decision to partner with Apple to provide iTunes support for the much-hyped but poorly-received Motorola Rokr E1. Access to the world's most popular music service undoubtedly was a draw for some, but it came with a litany of restrictions that did nothing to make the handset user-friendly. That, of course, has been a problem with music phones thusfar. I wholeheartedly believe in the idea of mobile-music convergence, but the drama of getting music onto a phone has been expensive and tedious. If Cingular can fire up downloads directly to the phone, then Cingular Music may take off. Of course, music phones with great sound quality and generous features also are essential, but Cingular's decision to pick up the excellent Sony Ericsson Walkman is a good step in the right direction.

(Photo: Samsung)