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Napster goes mobile with Ericsson

update The two companies team up to offer Napster Mobile, enabling consumers to purchase ringtones and full-length songs via their mobile phones.

update BARCELONA--Napster has teamed up with telecommunications equipment supplier Ericsson to make its digital music database available to mobile phone users.

Operators in markets across Asia, Europe and North America can make the new service, Napster Mobile, available to their customers, according to senior executives from both companies.

Launched here at the 3GSM World Congress, the service allows consumers to buy ringtones and full-length songs via devices that support WAP (Wireless Application Protocol) or Java 2 Mobile Edition.

The new service sports elements similar to Napster's PC-based software, such as top tracks of the day and new releases, and also features a recommendation engine that suggests content based on a user's personal musical tastes.

Napster Mobile customers can browse Napster's catalog of over 1.5 million song titles, and can also preview, purchase and play songs on their mobile handsets through a music player. After a piece of content has been requested, a downloadable copy is sent directly to a user's phone and an additional copy is sent simultaneously to their PCs.

Ericsson will offer Napster Mobile to operators as a hosted service, where it will integrate and manage the delivery of the service for the service providers.

Services has become a significant business for Ericsson, growing 29 percent year-on-year in 2005--which President and CEO Carl-Henric Svanberg described as a "breakthrough year for services". Last year, the company chalked up total services sales of SEK 40.3 billion (US$5.2 billion) across a portfolio that includes managed services, network deployment and integration and consulting.

According to Hans Vestberg, Ericsson's executive vice president and head of global services, the telecommunications equipment supplier employs 21,000 service professionals across 140 countries who are responsible for networks that support more than 650 million subscribers worldwide.

Speaking at a media briefing here Monday, Vestberg added that the company has provided network design and technology consulting for 200 projects on 3G deployment including application performance and network security consulting.

U.S.-based wireless phone operator, SunCom Wireless, is the first provider to sign on and will begin offering Napster Mobile in April, said Napster President Brad Duea.

Under the agreement, which is based on a risk- and revenue-sharing model, Ericsson will host, integrate and manage round-the-clock operations of the service for SunCom.

According to Duea, the new service will extend his company's geographical reach into the Asian markets. Currently, only customers in Japan can download Napster to their PC, made available through a partnership with Tower Records.

With Napster Mobile, mobile users from across the Asia-Pacific region can now gain access to the service through their operators, Duea told ZDNet Asia. "So, Ericsson will be our entry point into the Asia-Pacific region and in parts of the world where customers don't have access to our service via the PC platform," he said.

Ericsson has started "talking" to operators across the Asia-Pacific region, said Leif Eliasson, director and head of content and application sales, managed services and sales hosting with the telecommunications equipment maker. He declined to confirm if any deal has been signed, but acknowledged that the market potential is significant.

Citing figures from a study conducted by Ericsson, Eliasson said 30 percent of respondents do not bring an MP3 player with them when they leave the house. In contrast, most people today bring their mobile phones with them wherever they go.

The findings suggest there is market opportunity if mobile phones can double up as digital audio players, he said.

Napster Mobile customers can browse Napster's catalog of over 2 million song titles, and can also preview, purchase and play songs on their mobile handsets through a music player. After a piece of content has been requested, a downloadable copy is sent directly to a user's phone and an additional copy is sent--as a Windows Media Audio (WMA) file--simultaneously to their PCs.

According to Duea, Napster currently has more than 500,000 subscribers, raking in revenues worth US$44 million in the last two quarters alone. The company raked in the same amount for its fiscal 2005, ended Mar. 31, last year.

Once the popular haunt for illegal music file-sharing activities, Napster turned legit in 2003 after the courts blocked its service. Earlier this month, the file-swapping company was rumored to be heading for a merger deal with Google. The search giant has since denied it is considering a takeover.

Eileen Yu of ZDNet Asia reported from Barcelona, Spain.