Cricket Wireless, a small wireless carrier that spun out of Qualcomm in 1998, announced the imminent launch of a new music service called MuveMusic. The service will launch at CES next month in the Las Vegas area, with other markets to be added later. Unfortunately, the Wall Street Journal’s All Things Digital blog (piece written by Ina Fried of CNet, who ought to know better), Engadget, and other media outlets have fallen for the deceptive hype that this service has created for itself.
MuveMusic calls itself “the first wireless plan with unlimited music included.” It offers a library of millions of tracks from all of the major music companies. This description is misleading. MuveMusic is actually similar to services offered in Europe and elsewhere, such as from Vodafone and other carriers through Omnifone’s white-label MusicStation service. It’s really a paid monthly subscription music service where the US $10/month fee happens to be tacked onto your mobile phone bill instead of paid separately, as with Rhapsody, Napster, MOG, Rdio, etc.
The only “first” about the business model is that it is the first such price-bundling deal to launch in the United States. (Look carefully at the quotes from the music execs in Cricket’s press release and you’ll see that they agree.) And the network offering it is a small one by US standards, with about 5 million subscribers, compared to over 90 million each for AT&T Mobility and Verizon Wireless.
As for the technology, Cricket also claims that the service offers “DRM-free files,” the truth of which — to be charitable — depends on your definition of “DRM.” The files themselves are not encrypted, though they are surely sent over the air to the handset (about which more shortly) using an encrypted protocol. But the files are stored in a secure partition of a special SD card from Sandisk. The files can only play on the user’s handset; capacity is limited to 3000 songs (or about 300 albums); there is no streaming. It’s unclear whether a user can take her SD card to another MuveMusic-licensed handset and play the music there (thereby “lending” the music). Unlike Vodafone’s service and similar ones, the music files cannot be played on users’ PCs.
In any case, this is not new either, but rather reminiscent of Datz Music Lounge, which launched in the UK back in 2008 and has since folded. Datz Music Lounge offered unlimited downloads for £99/year but required users to insert a dongle-like secure USB device into their PCs in order to download music to them.
In fact, MuveMusic files can only be played on a single handset model, the $199 Samsung Suede SCH-r710. Unlike the Omnifone services (or device maker-based bundled services like Nokia’s Ovi Music Unlimited), MuveMusic files can’t be played on users’ PCs at all.
The “DRM-free” claim that so many new content services make is rich in irony for those of us who have been in the field for a while. In the early days of DRM (mid-late 1990s), the term DRM was meant to cover a wide range of technologies for managing rights in a digital environment, only some of which happened to involve encrypting files and controlling their use. Subsequently the press co-opted the term so that it only referred to the narrower, more restrictive technology. Supporters of rights management cried foul.
Now this interpretation has been turned on its head: content services that put limits on content uses can be called “DRM-free” as long as they don’t meet the narrow definition of DRM or don’t use a “brand-name” DRM technology such as PlayReady or Marlin or OMA DRM or Flash Access or Widevine.
Subscription services like MuveMusic need some form of usage restrictions, otherwise they are too easily abused. MuveMusic is no exception; otherwise the majors would not have licensed it. As I’ve said before, the term “DRM” has turned into a pejorative, so subscription services are using the idea of DRM while avoiding (or, in Cricket’s case, outright denying) the term.
No, Cricket Wireless’s MuveMusic is not a “game changer for everyone,” as Ben Bajarin of Creative Strategies amusingly puts it in the press hype. With newer mobile music services offering such features as cloud-based sync among all of a user’s devices, higher-fidelity files, and streaming, all Cricket is really offering is a billing convenience. In all other respects, it’s just singing the same old song.