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Sony’s confused music marketing strategy

A couple of days ago Engadget reported on the new Sony Ericsson W800 Walkman phone which comes with MP3 and AAC support. Copyfighter Derek Slater points out that this means that Sony markets a device that is incompatible with its own Connect online music store—Connect offers downloads in Sony’s proprietary ATRAC3 format wrapped in OpenMG DRM, which does not allow conversion to MP3 or AAC.

In fact, the situation is even worse; remember this news of a couple of weeks ago?

Sony BMG expects that by year’s end a substantial number of its U.S. releases will employ either Sunncomm’s newly enhanced MediaMax or First4Internet’s XCP to address piracy concerns.

This basically means that all Sony music for the U.S. market will soon be incompatible with Sony’s own W800.

Note that the situation in Japan (where the W800 is not available) is quite different. Sony Music Entertainment Japan does not produce CCCDs any longer and Sony Ericsson cell phones with MP3+AAC support do not exist; the only Sony devices that come close to the ‘cell phone+music player’ model are DoCoMo’s Music Porter and AU’s recently announced W31S, both of which support ATRAC3. (Note: the W31S also supports aacPlus.)

Japanese mobile phones as iPod replacements?

Recently, a lot of Japanese mobile phones are sold as if they are iPod substitutes—that’s only true to a certain extent. It is indeed correct that you can use them for full song playback and, in case you’re an AU subscriber, also download songs via their Chaku Uta Full service. When we look at the audio formats supported however, the situation is less iPod like.

As I explained in a related entry of two weeks ago, Chaku Uta Full for instance, come in the MPEG-4 aacPlus format and, unlike iTunes downloads, they can’t really be moved around between devices, let alone you can burn them to CD. The mobile phones that support Chaku Uta Full also have no MP3 support. If you want to play your own songs on your mobile phone, you have no choice but to convert your them first to MPEG-4 aacPlus. According to this thread, the NeroWaveEditor payware can help with the job. Note: as Chaku Uta Full providers won’t like this very much, I can imagine future phones preventing you from uploading your own MPEG-4 aacPlus files.

The recently announced W31SA series then comes with SD-Audio support (not with MP3 support, as Gizmodo incorrectly writes). In case you want to put your own music on your mobile phone, you have to purchase the SD-Jukebox third-party software that wraps the songs in DRM, preventing you from transferring them to another computer than the one they came from.

A look at DoCoMo’s Music Porter reveals a similar setup. Format there is ATRAC3 and special software is needed for ripping CDs and transferring tracks—I don’t know about DRM here, though. OpenMG maybe?

These examples show that the current generation of Japanese mobile phones is still far from being an iPod replacement—instead, they let customers taste from the portable audio hype, while restricting the experience by means of DRM and non-standard audio formats. Curious how long it will last.

Chaku Uta Full and DRM

While a lot of tech analysts watch Apple’s upcoming announcement of a Motorola phone with a built-in iTunes client, allowing for mobile music downloads, KDDI’s AU already launched a similar concept on the Japanese market in November 2004: AU’s 36000-downloads-in-the-first-three-weeks Chaku Uta Full service. The service allows owners of an AU W22SA, W22H, W21CA or W21T mobile phone to purchase downloads of full songs and listen to them on their mobile phone through a special headset or built-in speakers. Format used is MPEG-4 aacPlus (also known as HE AAC), which allows for high quality sound at low bitrates; stores where you can buy Chaku Uta Full include Lmelo, et al. Prices are between 210 and 420 Yen per song. Yes, that’s expensive.

However, here is the interesting part—and yep, I’m talking about the DRM.

Page 124 of the W22H manual tells us the device’s miniSD card is CPRM-compatible, meaning that the ways in which you can save certain types of content are constrained. Content with a copyright flag, such as Chaku Uta Full, can only be transfered to a certain encrypted folder on the miniSD card—this probably means you can’t transfer the Chaku Uta Full files you purchased to your computer nor play them on it. Furthermore, as the content in the miniSD card’s encrypted folder is somehow tied to the phone number of the phone it was purchased with, you can only transfer or play it with a phone with that very phone number. It thus becomes possible to transfer DRMed data from your old mobile phone to your new one, considering that you do not switch to another carrier and that you keep your number (= almost always more costly than getting a new number).

So, to summarize: KDDI has launched a quite expensive, but apparently successful service of high-quality and low-bandwidth music downloads that are heavily DRM encumbered, but can be transfered to another mobile phone in case you stick with your carrier and phone number (=expensive).

N.B.: I must say that I’m curious to see if it’s possible to encode your own MPEG-4 aacPlus files (e.g. with the Helix DNA Producer SDK and the AAC add-on package) and transfer them to your mobile phone. The guy in the AU shop told me it wasn’t possible, but I had the impression he didn’t really know what I was talking about; AU’s website and manuals don’t make me any wiser either. If it works, it might well undermine KDDI’s Chaku Uta Full business model. If anybody has a clue, please leave a comment.

Update: Slate has an excellent article on aacPlus.