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Verizon music service disables MP3 support

Signing up for cell phone giant's download store may undermine phones' ability to play most common music format.

Verizon Wireless' new music service for mobile phones was unveiled with much fanfare last week. But it comes with a catch: Those signing up for service will give up the ability to play MP3s on their phones.

The company's new song download service, announced at the Consumer Electronics Show (CES) in Las Vegas, is being built around Microsoft's digital-media technology. As part of that service, Verizon decided to eliminate the phones' previous ability to play MP3 files, hoping to keep the phones' music features simple, a company spokesman said.

In most cases, customers can still transfer their own music to the phones, and many may not even notice a difference. Microsoft's Windows Media 10 software will automatically make a copy of MP3 songs on a computer's hard drive and load them onto the phone in the correct Microsoft-based format, leaving the original unchanged.

But that software is only available for PCs today, leaving customers with Apple Macintosh or Linux-based computers out of luck, unless they find a different way of translating their MP3 songs into Microsoft's format.

"We don't view this as restricting functionality," said Jesse Money, Verizon's director of consumer multimedia services. "We wanted one music player on the phone with a simple and consistent look and feel throughout the player. If we were to leave (the MP3 support intact), then there would be two players with different experiences."

Verizon's V Cast Music service marks the most ambitious step into the digital music business by a U.S.-based mobile phone carrier.

Launching on Jan. 16, it will offer customers the ability to download songs directly to their phones for $1.99 each, or to a PC for 99 cents. Songs purchased through a PC can also be put onto the phone to listen to later. Either way, customers will receive a copy of the song for both PC and phone use.

Mobile-phone companies, as well as record labels, have been eagerly watching the surge in consumer spending on ring tones, which often cost $2.50 or more. Because people are used to spending a premium for instant access to content on cell phones, customers are also likely to accept higher prices for downloading full songs to phones, executives have said.

The V Cast service, which will compete with a similar music download service recently released by Sprint Wireless, will initially be available on a small number of phones, including the LG VX8100 and the Samsung a950.

Both of those phones have previously been advertised as offering support for MP3s. On Samsung's page, a line that previously said the phone could "play MP3 masterpieces " now simply promises "musical masterpieces."

A Microsoft spokesman said neither the company's technology, nor its deal with Verizon, had barred the phone company from supporting other audio formats.

Money said people who own either phone can choose to retain their old music software, which allows them to play MP3 files directly on the phone but will prevent them from using the new online music service. Customers who want to upgrade to the V Cast Music software should take their phones to a Verizon store to be upgraded in a process that should take about 20 minutes, Money said.

New versions of the phones will come with the V Cast Music software pre-installed.

Verizon has previously been sued by customers who alleged that it disabled some advertised Bluetooth features in a Motorola phone.

The PCS Intel blog site which originally reported the issue has posted instructions for on the LG VX8100 phone, but warns that the process may void the warranty on the device.