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Originally published March 28, 2007 at 12:00 AM | Page modified March 28, 2007 at 2:01 AM

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CTIA Wireless 2007 | Mobile-phone music regroups, tries again

More than two years ago, the wireless industry started experimenting with music on mobile phones. Cingular Wireless launched the Motorola...

Seattle Times technology reporter

ORLANDO, Fla. — More than two years ago, the wireless industry started experimenting with music on mobile phones.

Cingular Wireless launched the Motorola Rokr loaded with music from iTunes. Soon afterward, Verizon Wireless and Sprint started providing full-track music downloads to the phone.

But none was a chart-topper. Instead of rapid adoption by consumers, the initiatives fell short.

The Rokr was limited to storing a meager 100 songs, and downloads to the Verizon and Sprint phones were $2.50 to $3 a song, or up to three times higher than what people were paying for on the online counterparts.

At CTIA Wireless 2007 this week, some of those early stumbling blocks came tumbling down. Several announcements show the wireless industry has regrouped and still could make mobile music a success.

To be sure, no one is claiming this time that any one thing will kill the iPod. But new pricing models, new devices and an advertising push by carriers — and even Apple — could create consumer awareness to lift music off the ground.

Already, there are signs the growth curve is rising.

As of January, 17 percent, or 33 million U.S. mobile subscribers, owned a phone capable of storing and playing back music. M:Metrics, the Seattle-based mobile-research firm, said that represents 385 percent growth over the previous year.

The turnaround may in part be linked to the imminent arrival of Apple to the mobile-phone business.

The computer company said in January it will launch the iPhone in June with AT&T, the former Cingular Wireless, despite never having built one before.

Since then, the phone's sleek design has stolen the spotlight and drawn intense interest from Apple's devotees. Even at a price of up to $600, people apparently are clamoring for it.

During a CTIA keynote Tuesday, AT&T Chief Operating Officer Randall Stephenson held up the keyless device and said: "This is the first time for me to touch one of these — it will be a test of its ease of use."

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He added that more than 1 million people have asked AT&T to let them know when the phone is available.

In an interview Tuesday, Glenn Lurie, AT&T's president of national distribution, shared a few more details about the phone.

"Right now my night job is working closely with Apple to launch this," he said.

He considered Stephenson's 1 million estimate to be conservative. "I don't know if they are look-e-loos or if they are going to buy it, but it's pretty exciting," he said. "I've never seen anything like it before."

If Apple has added excitement to music on phones, other companies have continued solid work on logistics.

Sony Ericsson, which analysts have recognized for selling more music phones than any other handset manufacturer in the world, has 16 Walkman-branded phones available.

James Marshall, Sony Ericsson's senior product manager, said a survey of customers showed that 75 to 80 percent of those who buy a Walkman phone actually use it to listen to music.

The attention Apple is bringing to the business will only benefit others, he added.

"We view the iPhone as a positive in the marketplace," Marshall said. "[Apple] coming into the mobile music space adds credibility of music on mobile."

Sprint Nextel also made an announcement Monday that addresses another apparent hurdle: price.

The third-largest U.S. carrier said the 1.5 million songs in its catalog will now be priced at 99 cents each — leveling the playing field with Internet music downloads. Tracks on Sprint were previously $2.50.

Sprint also launched the Upstage, a two-sided phone made by Samsung. One side is an iPod look-alike; the other looks like a conventional mobile phone.

The phone is expected to be available next month in April for $150 with a two-year contract.

Danny Bowman, vice president of customer equipment at Sprint Nextel, said the company wanted the phone to be priced so that everyone could purchase it.

"We know a $400 device is less than 1 percent of any mix," he said.

Sprint's news was accented by the rock band French Kicks, which played among smiling wireless executives who looked as though they had gone platinum.

"If you can't tell," Bowman told the crowd, "I'm getting ready to take my shoes off and run around in excitement."

Tricia Duryee: 206-464-3283 or tduryee@seattletimes.com

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