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New Service Streams Music to Smartphones

Wireless connectivity in handheld digital music players is gaining ground. The MusicGremlin service, with its iPod-like Gremlin player, connects with Wi-Fi; Microsoft's much-talked-about Zune player will also feature Wi-Fi for transferring files. But what if you've already got a handheld — your smartphone, for example — and just wish you could use that to listen to your tunes?

Mercora plans to do just that for any device running Windows Mobile 5.0, no matter the connectivity — EDGE, EV-DO, HSDPA, or Wi-Fi. The company's new offering, called simply "M," couples a software application for the phone with an online service. You can use it to listen to the music stored on your PC or, eventually, the music stored on the PCs of up to five friends. The company also has 1,000+ "social radio" stations, with customized genres and sub-genres comprised of music submitted by users.

"Mercora spent three years building our network technology to allow access to music from all over the world," says Avikk Ghose, the company's vice president of business development. "Our software lets people Webcast or share entire music collections."

The current Mercora service has about a million users spread across 140 countries. It's far from U.S.-centric, with about 70% of the traffic coming from outside the States.

qpromo_sm.jpgM will run on phones like the Motorola Q, Samsung SGH-i320 and Palm Treo 700wx, but Ghose says it works on any Windows Mobile 5 product, be it a smartphone or a PDA. A full list of tested devices for the US, UK, France, Germany and the Netherlands is online.

To work effectively, the handheld needs to support some kind of wireless broadband connection. EDGE is probably the slowest connection it will work with without sounding bad.

At least one analyst, Rob Enderle with Enderle Group, is quoted by Mercora as saying that "the only device that can take the market away from the Apple iPod rapidly -- because it is more common -- is the cell phone," and that M is the "most aggressive" technology to challenge iPod dominance in handheld music to date. Unlike the iPod, however, phones running M do not store music locally.

The sound files are optimized versions of the open-source Ogg/Vorbis format. "It has high performance in narrow bandwidth," says Ghose. "We have a customized version that is a codec just for mobile... it's CD-quality." Music will also play back over the phones' Bluetooth connections, so you can listen on headsets or even in-car or in-house connections.

Previously, the company released software for Windows Mobile 2003 devices called Mercora IM Radio Mobile v1.0, for listening to the Mercora digital radio stations made up of user-contributed music. It works with such phones even with GSM and GPRS connections, but won't stream music from a personal collection on a PC.

In the future, Mercora is looking at the possibility of expanding M to other smartphone operating systems like Symbian, Brew, and Java, maybe even Palm if it gets a resurgence.

Anyone who wants to can try Meriden for free until October 31. After that, the standard price kicks in of $5 a month, $30 for six months, $50 a year, or $100 for two years.

"This might sound presumptuous," says Ghose, "but we want to deliver the unspoken promise of the Apple iPhone." He's referring to the almost mythical possibility of Apple making an iPod and cell phone combination. "We already have the ability to do that — to turn your smartphone into a music player."

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