Sony to launch radio service for phones

The consumer electronics giant plans to offer the first "personalized radio" service to mobile phones. Also, it unveils the European version of its Internet music store.

Sony said on Wednesday that it would launch the first "personalized radio" service to mobile phones that consumers can tailor to their own tastes.

The Japanese electronics, film and music giant also unveiled the European version of its Internet music store Connect, aiming to beat Apple's iTunes Music Store to the European market, while relaxing restrictive usage rules of its SonicStage player, which no longer limits the number of copies per song.

Sony, at the electronics trade show CeBit, said it is talking with "almost all" mobile telecommunications operators across Europe to bring personal radio to handset users, starting the service with the Finnish arm of TeliaSonera in April.

"We've been talking about networked services for a long time and now Sony comes out of the gates with music services. The mobile streaming service is unique,'' said Robert Ashcroft, Sony's European boss of network applications and content services. The personalization feature makes the service a world first, according to Sony. Operators such as NTT DoCoMo in Japan and U.S. carrier Sprint offer straightforward music streams.

Already, half a dozen European carriers are building computer systems with RealNetworks to enable them to upload or stream music and video to handsets. These computers can handle music from Sony, but also other coding formats. In Finnish trials earlier this year, the streaming music service appealed to older, professional users, because it enabled them to create their own music channel, Sony said.

"These people don't tune in to today's radio channels, which are aimed at a young audience. Our service allows them to discover their own music," Ashcroft said.

Consumers can tailor the music stream by pressing a button on their phone to indicate they like or dislike a song.

"It's self-learning. The channel will adapt over time," Ashcroft said. Wireless carriers are expected to charge a monthly fee of between $12 (10 euros) to $18 for the service, he said.

Sony's service, for which it has no name yet, will work on advanced multimedia handsets running on the Symbian software system, available on phones from Nokia, Siemens AG, Sony Ericsson, Sendo and others. The music will be sent over the GPRS (General Packet Radio Service) data-capable network of a mobile operator at a speed of 16 kilobits per second. It is not close to compact disc quality, but Sony figures that it is good enough to start with, while waiting for the faster 3G, or third-generation, networks.

Sony's European Connect-ion
Sony also announced the European opening in June of its Connect music store on the Internet, where consumer can buy songs for about $1.20 apiece and download them on their computer for use on portable players.

A version for the United States, competing with Apple's hugely successful iTunes Music Store, was announced in January. Connect will start in France, Britain and Germany, with 300,000 songs from the five major labels, including Sony Music, plus independent publishers and national and regional artists.

"Consumer interest can be up to 70 percent into local content," said Ashcroft. He was hopeful that Sony would be able to quickly expand the catalog, as music publishers realized their future was on the Internet, despite the threat of piracy.

"There's been a sea change in the industry. All labels have been willing to discuss licensing their catalog to as many credible platforms as possible. And Sony is a very credible platform," Ashcroft said.

Sony has beefed up its software player SonicStage and while giving better compression for more efficient storage and increased protection against piracy, the company had also removed the restrictive usage rules which consumers have balked at.

There is no longer a limit to the number of times a CD can be copied or to the songs that can be compressed and exported to other SonicStage devices. Rival software such as RealNetworks' RealPlayer or Apple's iTunes do not have such restrictions. There will be more restricted export rules for songs bought at Connect, depending on demands from the music labels, Sony said.

Story Copyright  © 2004 Reuters Limited.  All rights reserved.

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