The van drives around the city's streets while the engineer logs onto the Web and points a browser to MP3.com. The strains of Beethoven's Ninth Symphony boom out of the van's speakers in near-CD quality, flowing over a wireless connection that's as fast as a cable modem.
This is still just a prototype, accessible only in the area immediately around Qualcomm's San Diego campus. But it's a vision of the future that online music insiders are increasingly pinpointing as the key to their industry's success.
"Digital music must go to the car and be mobile," said Onehouse.com chief executive Jim Griffin, one of the godfathers of the online music business. "Otherwise it is nothing." Onehouse is a consulting company.
Griffin, MP3.com and others in the industry are pushing hard to make wireless connections one of the standard ways to reach online music. Downloading songs from the Web is fine, they say. But the industry can only be mature when consumers can reach online music libraries from a car, or on their cell phones, or on other wireless Walkman-like devices wherever they are.
This vision runs squarely into the reality of sluggish phone networks and different priorities inside the phone companies themselves, however. At least in the United States, these obstacles have pushed the promise of ubiquitous wireless music back several years--an eternity in the fast-moving Net world.
"Carrier companies aren't in the mood to think about music at this point," said Ken Koike, Ericsson's director of e-services. "They have to take care of today's business."
This disconnect between the ambitious Net companies and the actual networks they run on isn't new. The online music business has long struggled with the reality of consumers' slow network connections. The recent spark in interest in MP3 and other online music files is being driven in large part by college students with fast connections in dorms and by the few million consumers who have high-speed Net connections at home.
But rosy predictions are helping spur interest and investment. Analysts say that more than 1 billion cell phones will be in use worldwide in just a few years. The Yankee Group recently predicted that more than 204 million wireless phones worldwide would have Net access by 2005, creating a huge potential market.
Music biz ambitions
The push for wireless access is coming from some of the top figures in the online music world.
Griffin, whose peripatetic work schedule takes him from major music label offices to Nokia's European headquarters on a regular basis, is one of the leading proponents of a wireless music world. Because of his track record, people are listening.
As Geffen Records' director of technology for half a decade, he was one of the early pioneers of online music. At past MP3.com industry summits, he sparked controversy by spotlighting streaming music over downloads, a model that's now growing out of its childhood with services such as the controversial My.MP3.com.
But all of this has been a warm-up to the wireless world, where listeners can access their songs from any mobile device, whether it be a mobile phone or a Net-connected car "radio," Griffin says. And he thinks this world will arrive soon. At this year's MP3.com Summit he predicted that wireless access to the Net at just a little faster than 32 kilobits per second, slower than today's average dial-up modems, would be enough to bring consumers on board.
MP3.com CEO Michael Robertson, whose most recent vision casts his company as a kind of music "operating system" for any Net connected device, agrees that wireless access is essential for his company.
"Wireless is what will make this whole vision a reality," Robertson said. "We've done the browser-free access, we've done PC-free access. Wireless is the only piece left."
The company is already conducting trial projects with wireless carriers in Europe and the United States, Robertson said. He declined to give details, other than to say the European projects are further along, however.
This week's merger announcement between media firms Vivendi and Seagram, which owns the Universal Music Group, also highlighted the growing potential for wireless music delivery. Vivendi has a deal with mobile phone giant Vodafone to create a wireless Net portal. Seagram CEO Edgar Bronfman highlighted this partnership as a new way to bring his company's music to consumers.
For their part, mobile phone manufacturers such as Ericsson, Motorola and Samsung already are planting the seeds for wireless music access. All three companies have created MP3 players that live inside or plug into ordinary mobile phones, turning the devices into a hybrid Walkman and telephone. These will be on the market later this year, the companies say.
But because the phones can still only access the Net at about a quarter the speed of a regular dial-up modem, the companies say the best way to fill the MP3 players will still be to plug them into a computer and transfer files downloaded from the Net. Anything more will require faster phone networks.
Qualcomm's so-called High Data Rate, or HDR technology, will find its way into a few networks around the world as soon as late next year, analysts say. Japan and European networks will likely install the high speeds first, using either Qualcomm or competing "third generation" technologies that provide cable-modem connection speeds without wires.
U.S. networks are considerably behind but are edging toward the higher speeds. Sprint announced today it will test a high-speed system starting in early 2001. AT&T has said that its high-speed system likely will go into operation late next year.
Other systems also are being developed and tested as alternatives to the traditional wireless carriers. Sony recently invested in San Jose's ArrayComm, which is trying to develop a fast new wireless network for portable devices, for example.
Significant investment in the networks will be required, a reality of which the music companies are well aware. They'll also have more work to do in designing business models and working out legal complications, which still block most music from appearing online in any authorized form.
But the seeds are planted, proponents say.
"(Today) does remind me of the world of 1994," Griffin said, citing the earliest days of online music. "That which does not look impossible today becomes very impressive later on."