The iTunes phone introduced yesterday by Apple Computer is a critical step in getting consumers acquainted with the idea that cellphones...

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The iTunes phone introduced yesterday by Apple Computer is a critical step in getting consumers acquainted with the idea that cellphones do more than make calls, according to Cingular Wireless, which starts selling the phone in stores today.

Now the question is: Is it more than that?

Apple Chief Executive Steve Jobs unveiled the phone, called the ROKR (pronounced Rocker), at an event in San Francisco featuring appearances by Madonna and hip-hop artist Kanye West. He also introduced a new music player dubbed the iPod nano that is the size of a business card and designed as a replacement for the iPod mini.

Rivals say the phone falls short as a music service that lets consumers download songs directly to their mobile phones. In addition, they point out that hundreds of phones already in the palm of consumers’ hands today can play music downloaded first to their computer, but they may not even know it.

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“The iTunes phone is not a step towards over-the-air downloads; it’s just another phone that plays music,” said Stan Sorensen, senior director of marketing at Seattle-based Melodeo, which has an over-the-air download service.

Cingular sees the ROKR as a move to mass adoption of mobile music. It may not be the first to market, but it is the first to be conveniently wrapped up and tied together with an Apple bow.

“It raises awareness that the phone can do more than make calls,” said Sam Hall, who works in Cingular Wireless Redmond headquarters as a vice president for mobile browser services. “This is the first player that truly makes it simple to use.”

For Hall, it was important that consumers first learn how to download items to the phone with the introduction of ringtones. Now consumers will learn they can listen to music stored on a phone; the final step will be over-the-air downloads.

Hall would not say when Atlanta-based Cingular would roll out such a service but said that is part of its strategy. Verizon Wireless and Sprint Nextel have also made announcements regarding a music service.

There’s no shortage of companies competing in the mobile-music arena, which Sorensen says could reach $5 billion in 2009 worldwide. In the Seattle area alone, Microsoft, Loudeye, RealNetworks and Melodeo have all built software that makes music on mobile phones possible.

Before Apple’s announcement this week, Microsoft contacted members of the media to say there are more than 70 music phones on the market today, in 48 countries and based on the Windows Mobile and Windows Media technology.

“I won’t pretend this is unrelated to a certain event tomorrow,” David Caulton, Microsoft’s Windows digital media-division group product manager, said Tuesday. “We wanted to talk to folks to reinforce that the music phone is not all that totally new. There’s a history and breadth of offerings out there.”

The competition is fierce because the wireless industry sees mobile music as the next untapped market. With faster wireless networks being built out in nearly every major city, a song would take seconds to download. Wireless carriers such as Cingular are banking on recouping some of the investment in those networks through revenue from music, video or messaging.

For now, however, Cingular will not make any money off the sale of music or through the use of airtime on its network. Instead, it sees its exclusive relationship with Motorola and Apple as a way to attract new customers to the leading U.S. carrier and educate them on what the phone can do, Hall said.

The handset is priced at $250 for a two-year contract and $300 for a one-year contract. One notable feature is a dedicated button with a music note that launches the player. From there, users can transfer up to 100 songs, from Apple’s iTunes music service, and use menus to navigate and play songs. The 100-track limit is programmed into the software by Apple.

Headphones are equipped with a built-in microphone, allowing the user to leave them on to make or receive phone calls. When a call comes in, the music pauses and picks up where it left off when the call ends.

In introducing Apple’s other product, the nano, CEO Jobs characterized it as “the biggest revolution since the original iPod.”

The player replaces the iPod mini, and unlike the mini, it relies on flash memory, making it lighter and more energy-efficient.

One-third the size of the mini, the nano weighs about 1.5 ounces and will fit into a breast pocket. Apple says it can store up to 1,000 songs or 25,000 photos. A 4-gigabyte nano will retail for $249, and a 2-gigabyte model will sell for $199. The devices will be in some stores today and are likely to be widely available by the weekend, Apple said.

“It’s impossibly small,” Jobs said. “It’s thinner than a No. 2 pencil.”

Tricia Duryee: 206-464-3283 or Material from The Associated Press is included in this report.