Handicapping the mobile music services

The last few months have seen an explosion of services that let you play songs on-demand on your mobile phone. Here's a rundown.

Matt Rosoff
Matt Rosoff is an analyst with Directions on Microsoft, where he covers Microsoft's consumer products and corporate news. He's written about the technology industry since 1995, and reviewed the first Rio MP3 player for CNET.com in 1998. He is a member of the CNET Blog Network. Disclosure. You can follow Matt on Twitter @mattrosoff.
Matt Rosoff
8 min read

I'm a big proponent of cloud-based music services for mobile devices. I struggle figuring out which 500 songs I want on my 8GB iPhone at any given time, and the problem gets worse as as I download more apps. So it's gratifying to see an explosion of mobile music services in the last six months. Start-ups and established companies alike seem to believe that the current model, where users transfer songs from a computer to their phone using a wired connection, is not long for this world. Instead, these companies are coming up with various ways to dispense music over a wireless data network to your phone--no hookup required.

Rdio, now in invitation-only beta testing, joins crowded field of subscription mobile music services. This is a screenshot of the Rdio app for iPhone Screenshot

I've covered many of these services in single blog posts. But there's been so much activity happening in the last couple of weeks--from the announcement of Rdio (a subscription service created by the founders of Kazaa and Skype) to the public launch of MSpot (a music locker service highlighted by Google at its I/O conference in May) to the acquisition of Melodeo by computer giant HP--that it's getting hard to keep track.

To help sort it out, I've complied an alphabetical list of music services for mobile devices and included some key facts about each one. Most of these services are exclusive to the United States, except for Spotify, which is exclusive to Europe. At the end, I'll list a few services that have been recently acquired by big companies. I'm covering both subscription services, which let you stream (and sometimes download) any song in their library directly to your phone, as well as other types of services that give you remote wireless access to your own personal music library. I'm not covering personalized radio services like Pandora and Slacker--they can offer a great music experience if you want to let somebody else do the driving, but they're a replacement for the radio.

MOG All Access
What you get: Unlimited streams of any song in MOG's library. It currently works only with your computer and Roku's digital video player, but an iPhone app has been approved and should be available shortly.
Price: The mobile service will cost $9.99 a month. A three-day free trial is available without a credit card.
Pros: Lets you build virtual radio stations around a particular artist (in a fashion similar to Pandora) if you don't feel like creating playlists or picking every song yourself.
Cons: iPhone app isn't available yet. Some noticeable catalog gaps.
Current status: Young but coming on strong. The Web-based version launched last fall with deals from all the major labels, and is adding songs and device support fairly quickly. The company seems to have decent backing and just raised another $10 million in February. But it's hard to judge until we see the iPhone app in action.

What you get: An online music locker. A free desktop client lets you upload up to 50GB of your local music library to the MP3Tunes service, then stream that music over the air to any computer with a Web browser, as well as to an Android phone or iPhone (through the free Airband app).
Price: The free tier offers 2GB of storage, and you can request an invitation to increase that allotment to 10GB. A Premium account costs $4.95 per month or $39.95 per year and offers up to 50GB of storage. Higher storage levels are also available, with 200GB costing $12.95 per month or $139.95 per year.
Pros: With music lockers, you don't have to rely on the company signing licensing deals, so you won't encounter gaps from refusniks like The Beatles. A mobile Web site gives browser-based access from some phones that don't have a dedicated client. Developer APIs could help other mobile platforms create their own apps.
Cons: No way to buy new music through the service. Uncertain legal situation.
Current status: Grizzled veteran. The company's founder Michael Robertson rolled out the very first music locker, MP3.com, back in 1997. After the record companies basically sued MP3.com out of existence (that site has no relation to the site now operated by CBS Interactive, the publisher of CNET), Robertson retrenched, tried some different businesses, then came back with MP3tunes in 2006. MP3tunes is also being sued, and last October a judge ruled that copyright owners could sue Robertson personally.

What you get: This music locker service lets you upload your music collection to its servers with a free desktop client, then stream those songs over the air to your computer or Android phone. Currently supports Android 2.1.
Price: Free up to 2GB, with tiered storage levels up to 100GB for $13.99 a month.
Pros: Music locker service--any song in your library is available.
Cons: No way to buy new music through the service. Android only (for now).
Current status: Intriguing newborn. The service began public beta-testing this week, and early reviews are pretty good.

What you get: This subscription service, now in invitation-only beta-testing, lets you stream any song in its library to your computer or mobile phone. Free mobile versions of the Rdio app are available for BlackBerry (Curve, Bold, and Tour) and iPhone now, and an Android app is on the way.
Price: $9.99 a month. (You can get Web-only access for $4.99 a month.)
Pros: Social-networking component lets you see what others on the service have been listening to. Offline mode lets you download temporary versions of songs to your device and listen to them even when you have no Internet connection.
Cons: I experienced slow page-loading on the Web site, but the service is still in beta, so I'll withhold judgment.
Current status: Unborn with potential. Founders Niklas Zennstrom and Janus Friis created Skype and Kazaa, so they know how to build a popular Internet service.

Rhapsody Premier
What you get: This pioneer music subscription service gives you unlimited streams of any song in its library to your computer or mobile phone. Free mobile versions of the Rhapsody app are available for Android and iPhone, with a BlackBerry app coming soon.
Price: $9.99 a month for one device, or $14.99 a month for up to three. Fourteen-day free trial requires you to enter a credit card number. You can also get 25 free streams per month on the Web site, but not to your mobile phone.
Pros: Library of 9 million songs--the largest advertised music library of any subscription service. Offline playlist caching, so you can play music even when you lack an Internet connection.
Cons: Lacks advanced features like social networking or auto-generated playlists.
Current status: Battered, but standing. After losing 125,000 subscribers in 2009, owners RealNetworks and Viacom spun Rhapsody out as an independent company in April. It immediately dropped the price of its Premium service $5, to $9.99, but we'll have to wait to see whether this price cut will be enough to bring users back to the fold.

Spotify Premium
What you get: This European subscription service gives you unlimited streams of any song in its library to your computer or mobile phone. Free versions of the Spotify app are available for Android, iPhone, and Symbian.
Price: 9.99 euros per month; price varies outside euro zone
Pros: Offline mode lets you download temporary versions of songs to your device and listen to them even when you have no Internet connection. Available for Symbian.
Cons: Not available in the United States.
Current status: The cool kid at the party you're not invited to. Those of us stuck over in the United States can only watch with envy as our European brothers and sisters enjoy this service. The feature set doesn't sound all that different from what Rhapsody and others offer, but there's something about not being able to have it that makes you want it more.

Thumbplay Music
What you get: This subscription service gives you unlimited streams of any song in its library to your computer or your mobile phone. Mobile versions of the Thumbplay client are available for Android, BlackBerry (Bold, Curve, Storm, and Tour), and iPhone.
Price: $9.99 a month. Free three-day trial doesn't require a credit card.
Pros: Playlist Genie feature builds playlists around particular artists or songs.
Cons: Unfortunate brand association with Thumbplay's former service (now rebranded "Classic"), which sells ringtones and has been accused of using shady sign-up tactics.
Current status: Rehabilitated. I missed the whole ringtone trend without regret, but I was pleasantly surprised by the slickness of the Thumbplay Music service, both on the BlackBerry and the iPhone.

Zune Pass
What you get: This Microsoft subscription service gives you unlimited streams and temporary downloads of any song in its catalog to your Zune HD, plus 10 permanent MP3 downloads per month. It's also available on the recently canceled Kin phones and expected to be available on the Windows Phone 7 platform this fall.
Price: $14.99 per month. 14-day free trial requires a credit card.
Pros: The only streaming service available on the Zune HD. Ten permanent downloads per month means you get some lasting value from the service even if you cancel it after a few months. Smart DJ feature creates playlists based on single song or artist.
Cons: Only available for Microsoft products, no plans to port it over to other platforms. Higher price than other services.
Current status: Eccentric uncle hoping for a lucky break. This is Microsoft's service and works only in Microsoft's world. It was the first subscription service available for a mobile device, and the Smart DJ feature was an early innovation, but it never got off the ground because of poor Zune device sales. Perhaps Windows Phone 7 will revitalize it.

Finally, I'll quickly mention three products that were recently acquired by large players. Lala was a music locker service with a twist: you could also buy permanent streaming rights to songs that weren't in your library for $0.10 apiece. It was acquired by Apple last year, and shut down in May 2010. Nobody's sure what's going to come of it, but Apple is reportedly negotiating with record labels for a possible relaunch. Then again, Apple's perfectly happy with the current download model--iTunes is now the largest music retailer in the United States.

Simplify Media wasn't really a cloud-based service, but offered software that let you stream your iTunes library from your computer to your Android phone. It was acquired by Google earlier this year, and some of its functionality will come to a future release of Android.

Finally, Melodeo offers a variety of mobile apps that contain preset playlists of various songs--think of them as downloadable song bundles. But it also offers an app called Nutsie for Android and BlackBerry that let you stream iTunes playlists from Melodeo's servers to your phones. (The current version of the app doesn't actually upload your iTunes music to Melodeo. Rather, it reads your playlists then plays the songs from Melodeo's servers.) The company was working on a music-locker type service akin to MP3tunes and MSpot, but was recently acquired by Hewlett-Packard, presumably for integration into HP's Palm mobile device platform.

Correction, 1:30 p.m., July 1: This post misstated the maximum storage size available on MP3tunes.com. It is 200GB.