Cellphone manufacturers would like you to think that their handsets are more than adequate replacements for your iPod - after all, they not only play music but you can make calls, too! Yet up until now the carriers have been pretty draconian with how you use their data network, potentially the music-phone's primary distinguishing factor. Buying and downloading a song without needing to turn on your PC is the dream; expensive, poor-quality and over-DRM'ed has been the reality. Can Cingular change all that?
The launch of Cingular Music sure would make it look that way; for the first time, you're not limited to whatever "storefront" your carrier prescribes. Cingular has partnered up with Napster, Yahoo! Music and eMusic, offering a varying range of services with each. Napster and Yahoo! Music, for instance, are subscription based - $14.95 a month for the former and from $11.99 for the latter - and both now allow you to sync all the music downloads on your computer with your Cingular cellphone. Both let you preview music and browse the catalogue from your handset, and you can buy a Napster track for $0.99 or queue up a Yahoo! Music track to download on your PC.
eMusic differs from the other two in that the files they sell are nice, standard mp3s that don't "expire" if you stop paying your monthly subscription. There's no way to download them on your handset, but if you buy a Sony Ericsson W810i or W300i from Cingular then you'll get 50 free downloads.
Finally, from November 6th those on the Cingular network will be able to listen to any of 25 selected channels from XM Satellite Radio, streamed via the carrier's data network. The monthly subscription of $8.99 gets you unlimited access. To help manage all of the options, selected Cingular phones will have a special "Cingular Music" menu option; features such as the mobile shop, the stored music folder and the track-identifying MusicID will all be accessible there. Supported handsets so far include the exclusive Cingular SYNC by Samsung, LG CU500, Sony Ericsson W810i, Sony Ericsson W300i and Cingular 3125.
Is this the Holy Grail of mobile music? Personally, I'd say "not quite". As cellphone data speeds get faster and faster, I don't see why downloading music direct to the handset isn't an option on all of the services, and having to pay almost a dollar for the privilege with Napster seems a tad unfair when you're already subscribing. It'll remain to be seen how easy it is to navigate a catalogue in excess of 4 million songs on a screen smaller than a reasonably small squirrel, too. But kudos to Cingular for at least trying something different.
Cingular Music [Cingular]