Streaming music for smart phones

Internet radio service Mercora introduces an application that streams music libraries wirelessly. Images: Mercora's "M"

Though discussion has lately revolved around whether Microsoft will elbow Apple Computer off its lofty perch in the portable music sector, a mobile software maker is trying to position itself as a threat to both.

The 3-year-old Internet radio service Mercora on Monday introduced "M," the first wireless, over-the-air mobile media application for smart phones. The software gives phones running Windows Mobile 5.0 the ability to play music wirelessly from a PC without compromising sound quality.

Mercora's M

The company's president and CEO Srivats Sampath said he believes the service will give the two computing giants a run for their money.

"We've beat Steve Jobs to the . Our software delivers all the same capabilities. And we've beat Microsoft to the Zune," said Sampath, because the device lets users share music wirelessly.

Those are pretty sweeping statements from Sampath, who is also the former CEO of McAfee. And analysts say that though it may be true, actually prying music lovers away from their favorite MP3 player will be hard with a niche as small as smart phones, which have about a 2 percent penetration rate in the U.S.

Mercora's M works by giving subscribers access to their digital music library--only WMA, MP3 or Ogg Vorbis formatted files--from any location via their phone. The software encodes and decodes all files to Ogg Vorbis, a low bit-rate format of near CD quality, before it reaches the earphones. Sounds cool, but forget about playing songs bought from Apple's iTunes Store--Apple uses a proprietary format called AAC, which Mercora M can't play. Music ripped from a CD to an iTunes library, though, is fair game, according to Avikk Ghose, Mercora's director of business development.

Because the files are not carried on the phone, storage is limited only by the size of the computer on which they are kept. This means there is no need to sync or update any device with a music library. With a dedicated portable music player, however, users' songs must be downloaded to a computer hard drive and manually synced with the player. In addition, M lets subscribers tune into 100,000 Internet radio stations, searchable by about a thousand genres and sub-genres.

"The next generation of music players is going to be a phone. It's not going to be a dedicated device."
--Srivats Sampath, Mercora CEO

The all-you-can-eat fee of $4.99 a month or $49.99 for a year of M is "very competitive," according to Richard Doherty, research director of the Envisioneering Group. It's the same as the fee for Yahoo Music, a flat-rate, unlimited model for downloads from Yahoo's music store to a PC.

Mercora's Sampath thinks he's got Microsoft beat with his software that goes beyond the forthcoming Zune music player. Microsoft has taken pains to emphasize its player's niftiest feature: sharing certain songs with other Zune users within wireless range. But those songs .

Mercora cuts through the Zune's limitations by letting an M subscriber log on to the home music libraries of up to five other people anywhere in the world. Of course, their permission must be granted. Mercora has also taken pains to make sure no wires are necessary, ever. Any of the songs can be broadcast with Bluetooth over a car stereo or in a home entertainment center.

Mercora's founder says his inspiration for M came from Europe's 3G broadband network. While most European phones don't have enough storage for music files, they've been using a robust data connection that sends more information (a phone call and downloaded data like e-mail, music, pictures or video) more quickly. Sampath noted that most Europeans were simply sending and receiving e-mail, which he thought was "a waste of a network." Music files, he thought, would be a perfect application.

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