A sad cellular song

LIKE A LOT OF CELLPHONE service providers, Verizon Wireless wants you to use your cellphone to do more than just make calls. But as its latest venture illustrates, Verizon could use a new slogan. Instead of "We never stop working for you," it's more like, "We make your phone stop working." And therein lies a cautionary tale of new technology -- for consumers and businesses alike.

Last week, Verizon announced a new service, dubbed V Cast Music, that will let customers buy songs for their phones. (As hard as it may be to believe, some people are willing to pay a premium for a mobile phone that can double as an MP3 player.) For $1.99, or twice the price of a song from a typical online store, users can download a track to their phone and a second copy to their PC.

Left out of the announcement -- it was later disclosed by a little-known website called PCSIntel.com -- was a disturbing fact about the service: Customers who "update" their music-playing phone to work with the new service lose the ability to play the MP3s they already own. That also applies to MP3 files stored on removable memory cards as well as the phone's internal memory.

The implicit message: Don't use your cell phone to play your music, use it to play our music -- that is, music you bought from Verizon Wireless.

The company points out that customers can still transfer the songs they own from their PC to their phone. (They have to use a Microsoft-powered PC and convert the songs to Microsoft's Windows Media format, then transfer them through a $30 cable that Verizon will happily sell them.) A company spokesman said customers who "update" their phones will be warned explicitly about the capabilities they'll lose. The company also says the V Cast software eliminates MP3-playing capabilities for the sake of simplicity, and customers who do not want to lose that feature do not have to use the service.

Nevertheless, Verizon Wireless is forcing customers to give up something to get something else. This is sadly common among avid users of new technology, who often act as guinea pigs for new features and services. It is especially common among customers of Verizon, which already disables several useful features in its high-end phones. Unless its customers scour the Web for reviews, they don't learn about such restrictions until after they buy the phone.

This is a strange way of doing business in a competitive market. Maybe Verizon and other cellphone service providers should try offering new services that don't take something away from their customers in the bargain. Or maybe -- it just might work -- they can concentrate on offering reliable phone service.

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