Interview – Sony Ericsson: "Digital audio players won't exist in two years"
Okay, so a big mobile manufacturer saying that MP3 players will soon be toast isn’t entirely surprising – they’re keen to push their handsets’ music capabilities after all. But Victor Fredell, Sony Ericsson’s content acquisition manager for music, is still adamant in his prediction.
“I won’t go as far as saying that the digital audio player as dead, but I will definitely say that it won’t exist in two years,” he says. “Not in the way that we have it today, anyway.” Naturally, Sony Ericsson is hoping its Walkman range of music handsets will help boot MP3 players down the gadget dumper.
In our interview, Fredell explains why mobile users prefer sideloading to buying songs over the air, how Sony Ericsson is putting more emphasis on music applications for its Walkman phones, and how Web 2.0 and music-sharing fit into the future of mobile music. Oh, and obviously, he does have an opinion on the iPhone too…
By February this year, Sony Ericsson had sold over 20 million Walkman phones, and equally importantly had turned Walkman into THE mobile music brand, rescuing it from its association with Sony’s initially-dodgy Walkman digital music players.
“First we focused on getting really good hardware together, then we worked on the accessories like Bluetooth speakers and headphones, and now we’re at step three, which is trying to get better usage out of the hardware and accessories with services like Track ID, Sense Me and Shake,” says Fredell. “We’re trying to develop applications to go with the hardware, while also connecting with the mobile operators’ music stores, so for example if you use Track ID to identify a track, when you get the results back you can click to buy it straight away.”
If you’re new to them, Track ID is a Shazam-style identification service that lets you record a clip of a song playing, then tells you what it is. Sense Me is a new graphical way of navigating around your tunes based on ‘mood’, using beats-per-minute but also other variables. And Shake lets you skip around your music collection by waggling your phone.
However, the big question on mobile music is why people aren’t buying more tunes from their operators. Research earlier this year from mobile firm M:Metrics claimed that here in the UK, 12.2% of mobile users sideload songs onto their phones, compared to just 2.7% who buy from their operator. Why? Fredell says data charges put many people off.
“A lot of peopel found that if they bought a full-length track over the air, they didn’t just pay for it, but also for the data charge. It’s crazy! Even if you buy from your operator store, the data isn’t always built into the cost, although that is changing. But I don’t think people realised about these data charges at first, and once they did, they backed off and started sideloading. We don’t really care: we just want people to use our phones for their intended purpose, in whatever method they prefer.”
However you get tunes onto your phone, Sony Ericsson is keen to make it easier to navigate around them, particularly with the capacity of music phones increasing (8GB is no longer such a rarity). Fredell points out that it’s possible to ‘lose’ or forget about digital music as your collection increases, in much the same way that people who have towers of CD albums rarely play the ones at the bottom.
“We are gathering an enormous amount of data and files on our handsets nowadays, so features like Sense Me or more user-friendly media browsers will be more and more important for the future of music consumption,” he says. “And media consumption too: there’s just as much need to navigate around your digital photos, your video clips and your games.”
What about capacity and music phones though? Although flash memory is becoming cheaper and larger, I can’t help wondering if at some point, mobile phones will go back to being ‘thin clients’, which won’t actually need your music to be stored on the device. Either because you’ll be streaming it from your home collection (think SlingBox) or because you’ll be signed up to a Last.fm-style personalised radio service. In short, do people need to keep 8GB or more of music on their phones?
“The problem with a thin client is that it doesn’t work on an airplane, or the subway, or on top of Everest,” says Fredell. “Okay, so that last one’s extreme, but listening to music on a plane is something that people want to do. So all-you-can-eat and streaming services are good for some people, but it’s not the whole offering.”
Last.fm raises a different topic, actually, which is Web 2.0, communities and music-sharing. There’s a fast-growing number of Web 2.0 sites focused on music (inevitably tagged Music 2.0), but so far on mobile, it hasn’t been a big feature of either the Walkman phones, or mobile operators’ music stores. Will this change? Fredell thinks it already is.
“The whole Web 2.0 thing will definitely be important,” he says. “It already is, but a lot of people haven’t seen it. If you look at Facebook, there’s already great applications for having it on your mobile, for instance. Our handsets can handle these things, but we just need the developers to realise the need for it, and create more of these applications.”
Music-sharing is a more difficult issue, although he recognises that kids especially are already merrily downloading tracks illegally onto their computers, sideloading them to their phones, and then swapping them via Bluetooth – even though it still takes a while to transmit an MP3 between two handsets. This, according to Fredell, is an opportunity.
“It’s definitely going to be faster to buy songs from legal services and download them over-the-air,” he says, citing HSDPA networks as an important step up in speed terms. “What we have to do is make everything available legally, because it’s all available illegally, and then make it easy for people to find or discover it. And then also make it easy for them to purchase it on the fly as an impulse buy.”
This is where Track ID seems important for the future of what Sony Ericsson and the mobile operators do. Although you can already click to buy songs that you’ve ID’d, isn’t the next logical step to be able to forward those ID’d songs as recommendations to your friends, so they can buy them too? For example, if you’re in a club hearing something amazing, being able to identify it and pass the purchase link to friends in your address book?
“Definitely, I think that’s coming,” says Fredell. “I could tell you, but… well, you don’t have to be a genius to understand that a lot of people are looking into how you can do this. It’s the record labels’ wet dream, and what they’ve all been talking about for the last four years: super-distribution.”
So what about the iPhone then? It’s been the elephant in the room at every press launch for rival manufacturers’ music phones this year – albeit an elephant with scores of technology journalist pointing at it and saying ‘Cor, that elephant looks amazing, bet your trunk isn’t as long as his…’
Fredell says what he has to – that the iPhone is great for the market because it’s providing competition, and that Sony Ericsson is confident in its broad portfolio of music phones, etc etc. And he slips the obligatory dagger between Apple’s shoulders too (while not mentioning Apple or iPhone by name – a policy seemingly shared by Sony Ericsson AND Nokia execs).
“It’s great, and it highlights a lot of the features that we have that certain competitors don’t. I mean, I love gadgets, so I want to play with every new thing that comes along. And that particular phone has shown some really good development when it comes to user interface. But nothing is perfect…”
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Why on earth would they want to talk about the iPhone? It’s an overrated bit of kit that – through the usual silly Jobs-worship and media hype – has sold bucket loads. Why would SE wish to talk that up or give it more PR?!
Anyway, the iPhone does nothing that at least two SE phones can already do (with more to come) so like most people who know what they’re talking about SE don’t regard it as the revolutionary device other more mortal morons do.
Interesting, though totally trivially it amuses me that none of these execs seem to want to mention Apple or the iPhone by name.
Do they think it’s jinxed?
Ed Zander for Motorola won’t talk about it either.