Dial M for music

Soon you’ll be able to listen to MP3 music files and talk to your friends on a mobile phone headset. But which would you rather do? asks Mike Exon

After sex, MP3 is apparently the most frequently searched-for word on the Internet. For those uninitiated in the latter, MP3 stands for near-CD quality music which you can download from the Web. And the best bit is that, like sex, it is pretty much free.

Of course, MP3 players such as the Rio have been around for a while, but their appeal remains by and large in the domain of technophiles. Now, mobile phone manufacturers are hoping to bring them to the masses. If you can use a mobile, you can use one of these.

From March, Ericsson’s MP3 player accessory is going to be available for its latest generation of phones. The thinking is sound enough. Users get to listen to high quality music with a pair of headphones, which doubles as a handsfree set. If you get a phone call while grooving to the music, your tunes can be muted while you choose whether to take the call or divert it, either via the phone keypad or a switch on the headphone lead.

The acid test, as any hi-fi buff will tell you, is the quality of sound. And it does sound very good. Although admittedly my five-year-old Sony Sports Walkman does not cast me in the role of portable music connoisseur, especially when my headphones were bought for £1 from Caledonian Airways during its pre-JMC rebrand sale last year.

The MP3 player scores high for compactness, (smaller than a matchbox), simplicity and sound. Obviously, it is an accessory which will probably end up disappearing inside the units if popular enough. Ericsson says they will be competitively priced with other MP3 players, which are likely to become very affordable, very quickly.

What hasn’t been resolved though is not really a problem for Ericsson’s Internal Industrial Design Group head Tom Waldner, whose team in Lund, Sweden, is responsible for designing and developing the latest range of curving gold-coloured concept products from whence this MP3 emerged.

Downloading music from the Internet requires a separate unit, which is available commercially, but may or may not be packaged with the Ericsson player. Not having experienced the joys of downloading MP3 files myself, this leaves me slightly in the dark.

Obviously, the unit’s success will be closely linked with the take-up of music by MP3. This ultimately is down to the way in which the “grey area” of MP3 regulations is resolved by the music industry, and how the youth market perceives owning MP3 music files.

Inextricably linked with this, of course, is whether the music catalogue beyond Phil Collins and the Bangles (its present mainstay) becomes readily available in MP3 format.

Then again, if musicians such as The Artist or Beastie Boys’ Mike D can champion MP3 as the means of breaking the stranglehold of the music corporations, it’s fine by me.

The thinking is sound on the product side too. By encouraging customers to buy into services like MP3 and FM Radio, Ericsson creates loyalty and fuels user expectation about what it means to have a mobile phone, or rather a mobile device.

With designs round the corner for videophones, videomessaging, and other broadband applications, the design and function of the mobile phone is being altered forever.

The Ericsson MP3 launches in March, price to be announced

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