Recent launches of mobile music services from UK mobile operators T-Mobile and O2 have again focused attention on the role of music in the wireless world, but the comms-enabled iPod seems a long way away.

MP3s are an attractive prospect for the wireless carriers because music – once digital rights management (DRM) and appropriate revenue models have been established – presents a lip-licking opportunity for them to make the premium sales they so badly need to reinvigorate their balance sheets. Music is ideally suited to the mobile commerce model since it is a weightless product, tracks can be delivered at a price point modest enough to add to a phone bill, even a prepaid one, and there’s a potentially vast market to tap.

The success of MP3 players – Apple’s iPod in particular – has shown that there’s an appetite among consumers to download music at home and listen to it on the move. It’s such a logical progression to take this success mobile, but there are significant technical challenges to overcome that will see MP3 enabled cellular devices remain the reserve of the top end of the market for some time yet.

A key issue is power. Mobile phones are power hungry, as are music players with built-in hard drives. The hard drive technology in terms of size and performance is already available: manufacturers such as Toshiba, which already makes the hard drives for the iPod, are at the forefront of the drive to miniaturize with the announcement of its new range of small-form hard drives, the smallest of which measures 0.85 inches and is being used in a selection of concept devices.

Bringing the two technologies together in a unified device is the challenge, both technically and culturally. Apple needs to involve itself now if it is to continue to maintain the market share the iPod has given it in the market. The music-playback-enabled ‘smartphone’ has been available from a number of device vendors for about a year. These are high-end devices that typically run an open operating system and have limited memory size.

UK device manufacturer Sendo, for example, offers its Sendo X smartphone which has music player capability. This product, which is about to ship, has built-in capacity for Real Audio and MP3 and is available with a stereo headset that has 32MB of memory. Sendo has the expansion capability to raise this to 1GB.

“We think customers do want music playback capability as part of the phone,” said Ron Schaeffer, product management director, Sendo. “However, our research suggests they only want the capability so long as they aren’t making compromises on either the device’s quality as a telephone or a music player.”

Schaeffer thinks that Apple could have a significant role here but thinks it unlikely that the company would enter into a public arrangement with a device vendor to bring an Apple or iPod co-branded device to market. Apple would be far too protective of its brand to see the far-fetched notion of an Apple-Nokia device come to fruition; for that matter, so would Nokia, which guards its brand with equal ferocity.

And carriers won’t be beating a path to Apple’s door to access its technology. “We don’t intend to merge the iPod with mobile services. For us, as a mobile operator, the handset is the only relevant device. The handset has to support music functionality, as do the handsets for our recently launched Mobile Jukebox services, but Apple’s music agenda of using iTunes to drive iPod sales is different to an operator agenda,” said a spokesperson at T-Mobile, which has recently launched Mobile Jukebox – a new service that lets users download songs onto their mobile phones. The songs, which are lightweight files, take around two minutes to download and last between 90 and 120 seconds  – not the sort of experience iPod users would be expecting.

Schaeffer concurs that it isn’t so much the iPod as a device that will grab mobile manufacturers and operators, but thinks some of the technology within it will be the attraction. “The interesting thing about Apple is iTunes and the relations it has and its sales channel rather than its particular technology,” he added. “The user interface on the iPod is extremely good. They could bring out some form of mobile iTunes, but I don’t know if that fits Apple’s model.”

Apple is giving nothing away. A particularly reticent spokesperson told Macworld the company does not comment on future technology issues.

A mobile iTunes would be an especially appealing prospect for the wireless market because AAC, which is the format for iTunes, has been adopted by the 3GPP, the industry’s standards-setting body of which Apple is a member. “There are more and more reasons for playback other than songs,” said Schaeffer. “AAC decoders will be in all phones so it will not be a big jump to use an AAC codec – the basic building blocks will be there.”

Apple’s options seem to centre on licensing software, possibly a mobile version of iTunes, to device manufacturers or developing some form of partnership with a mobile phone manufacturer. It seems too great a leap, and a counterproductive one, for it to attempt to develop telephony capability at this late stage in the game. Audio quality for stereo playback is something the phone manufacturers need to learn more about – and the consumer electronics companies remain largely uninformed about telephone ergonomics, voice quality and communications technology. Partnership seems the most likely way forward.

“Delivering and enhancing services is always the result of the collaboration of the various players in telecommunications, media, hardware, and the technology industry,” said a T-Mobile spokesperson. “Nobody is able to build all the expertise and all the functionality.”

Schaeffer agrees, but seems to think Apple may be further advanced than either it, or the device sector, is prepared to admit. “It wouldn’t surprise me if Apple was working with a phone manufacturer now to gain phone technology to add to a new communications-enabled device,” he said.