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6/28/2007
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Linspire's Michael Robertson: Why I Love MP3 Music Lockers But Hate DRM

The MP3.com and Linspire founder talks about his current ventures AnywhereCD and SIPphone, and why he thinks the Symbian-powered Nokia platform beats the iPhone hands down.

InformationWeek: What's the problem?

Robertson: The problem with DRM is, inherently, it’s controlled by one company. You’re adding a layer of technology that one person’s going to control and have patents on, and they can’t resist using that to block all their competitors. So, inherently, DRM is in-interoperable, if that’s a word. It can’t be made to work together.

InformationWeek: Let’s get beyond DRM. How is the music business going to reconstitute itself? Is it going to be subscription services? Is it going to collapse?

Robertson: I think it’s unavoidable that there’s going to be some pain and some revenue contraction, because [record companies] have a fixation on the CD and it's the singular generator of the vast majority of their revenues.

InformationWeek: They haven't recognized that the CD is finished?

Robertson: It's easy to say that the CD is finished, but the reality is that 85 percent of their revenues still come from the CD.

InformationWeek:. So I'm wrong?

Robertson: Well, it's true that the CD is quickly dying, but it's still a very large piece [of revenues]. This is the dilemma the record companies have, because they don't want to do anything that increases the deterioration of the CD. A decade from now, the music industry is going to be much more diverse than it is today. Today it's CDs, 85 percent of revenue, everything else, 15 percent.

Ten years from now, no one contributor is going to make up more than 20 to 25 percent of their revenue. Whether it's subscription, physical retail, a la carte digital sales, or hybrids like AnywhereCD.com.

InformationWeek:. Do you think Amazon has a chance of becoming the first real potent competitor to iTunes?

Robertson: There's no reason for me to believe that they do, because they really don't have anything. It's vapor right now. They've said they're creating an MP3 store; big deal. What content do they have? For sure, they'll have indie [independent record labels] content, but that's available now from a hundred different sites.

InformationWeek:. Let's talk about Linspire. How's it doing these days?

Robertson: I'm only the chairman now; I don't have any day-to-day operational responsibilities. Kevin Carmony is the president and CEO. I've been spending my time on my voice-over-IP company, SIPhone, and then my digital music venture.

I do believe, in a big picture way, there's a battle going on right now in terms of how Linux is going to live with software patents, if at all. I'm not a fan of software patents. I think that all of them are bunk. But the reality is, we do have laws that have given us a patent system, and so there's this fork in the road that Linux is at. Are they going to be pragmatic and realize that the world we live in has patents? Or are they going to be idealists and say, hey, we're not going to live with patents. And I think that's the battle that's happening right now.

It's easy for [Richard] Stallman and company to say, "We're not going to live with patents," because he doesn't have a commercial business. He's not out there in the real world, fielding technical support calls saying, "My DVD won't run." We are. So as much as I think that paying five dollars in royalties for DVD playback software is ridiculous, that is the world that we currently live in. Until Congress gives relief or something dramatically changes the Patent Office, you have to deal with it.

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