With the music industry in a frenzy to coax users back to a paid-based model for media, cloud based subscription services and mobile devices seem to be the way of the future. In the UK, Spotify has seen growing success with its cloud-based music service, allowing users to pay a low monthly fee that enables them to download and stream music to their computer from a vast library of music. In the United States, Rhapsody has emerged as the largest cloud-based music service available. Similar to Spotify, Rhapsody allows users to stream music from their online libraries, as well as download a certain amount of gigabytes to their mobile devices. The arrival of 2011 brought the Consumer Electronics Show (CES) held in Las Vegas, along with new models of cloud-based technology.
The most exciting new service introduced at CES this year is called “Unifi”, and is produced and controlled by the RealNetworks family. RealNetwork is noteworthy for their media players, which are mostly PC-compatible. Their free media player can be downloaded to PCs, and they can play any musical content available in the library in a customized, easy to use interface. Unifi hopes to bring together people’s need for media on the go, including music, photos and videos. Unifi, which was warded the “Best of CES” prize for software and apps by CNET.com and Engadget.com, will merge all the media from a consumer’s computer and mobile devices into one online database. This database will automatically organize and filter one’s pictures, music and videos, and allow easy access to said data from anywhere with an Internet connection. This means consumers can not only access their iTunes libraries from anywhere, but also have one place to store all their photos and videos, which they will easily be able to send directly to Facebook, YouTube, Twitter, Flickr and Tumblr.
In order to stream media from Unifi’s database, one must be connected to the Internet. Typically, uploading pictures to various websites and downloading content to a mobile device requires a fairly strong Internet connection. However, for commuters and people who are not within range of a wireless network all the time, this service is still very appealing. Unifi has incorporated a way to download media to one’s mobile device when connected to a wireless network, enabling them to have the media with them on the go. People who take the subway to school and work would be able to download music to their iPhones or iPods while connected to the Internet, but still have access to the content when their connection fades.
Unifi will release its public beta within the next month. They have announced that this service will be a “freemium” service – meaning that the first 2 gigabytes of storage will be free, and for anything after that the consumer would pay a monthly fee. Though RealNetworks hasn’t yet announced anything specific yet, they did say that it would cost “roughly the same amount as one cup of coffee per month.” With a price lower than $10 a month, possibly even $5 a month, this service is sure to be a huge attraction to consumers nation-wide. The hope is that it will entice consumers back to a paid-based model for getting media.
Also at CES this year, a cloud-based music service by Cricket wireless was unveiled. Cricket is a relatively small wireless service provider that has a small selection of flip phones and smartphones available to consumers. At CES, they announced their own version of a new cloud-based music service availably exclusively to Cricket subscribers. For $55 a month, users will get a cell phone plan that includes unlimited talk, text, web surfing, and music downloads. “Muve music” is the moniker Cricket gave to this music downloading service that will be incorporated into their monthly plans. Deals with Warner Music Group, EMI and Sony Music were made to offer an extensive and desirable catalogue to their consumers.
Muve music differs from other cloud-based music services like Unifi and Rhapsody. The main difference is that users are only allowed to download music directly to their phones and no other devices. Meaning, people with iPods and other mp3 players wouldn’t be able to transfer the music to their existing library. Muve is also not compatible with computers or tablets, which again does not allow consumers to transfer their downloaded music from their phones to their iTunes libraries on their computers. The music files will not be DRM protected, but they will be encrypted with a new type of Dolby PCM code. This encryption allows users to download music to their phones faster than they would be able to from their computers, yet inhibits users from connecting their phones to any other device to transfer music. Jeff Toig, Cricket’s vice president of product marketing released a statement saying, “Our files are not DRM tracks, but the area on the card that the music lives in is protected. If you are a paying customer, the door to that content is open. If you are not a paying customer, the door to that content closes”.
Cricket’s phones come equipped with 1 GB of free space, which could hold approximately 3,000 of Muve’s compressed songs. Connection to Cricket’s 3G network allows users access to music in a variety of areas as well as a fast download speed for their media. The music will be stored on a memory card inside the phones. Initially, each phone will only come with a 1 GB card, but more frequent users have the option to upgrade to either a 4 GB or 8 GB card for more music storage at an additional one-time price.
Currently, Cricket’s wireless 3G service is limited to certain areas. High coverage areas include Miami, Dallas, San Francisco, Baltimore and Cleveland. With the launch of Muve, Cricket plans to expand its coverage to 13 new major markets, including Washington D.C, Charlotte, Chigaco, Memphis, Nashville, Pheonix, Milwaukee, Witchita and San Diego. Additionally, the Muve service is only available to Cricket subscribers with a Samsung Suede phone. This phone isn’t a smart phone, however it does come equipped with a touch screen, minimal buttons, and a fast 3G connection where available. According to Jeff Toig, Cricket is adding a new line-up of smartphones to its small collection in the next few months, and they will expand its Muve service to other smartphones operating on other selected wireless carriers.
The explosion of file sharing and the over saturation of bands in the market are two of the main contributors to the loss of revenue in the music industry. With cloud-based subscription models emerging and gaining popularity, the announcement of new and improved services at CES showcased a promising upturn in the way consumers find and listen to music. RealNetwork’s Unifi software is sure to turn heads for not only the consumers who crave music on the go, but also the millions of Facebook, Youtube and Flickr users nation-wide. Cricket’s Muve service is one to keep an eye on, although the wireless company has numerous features to add and problems to tweak before Muve becomes a household name like Rhapsody or Spotify. These exciting announcements and advancements in cloud-based technology suggest promise for 2011.
By Jamie Anderson