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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.

Net entrepreneur Michael Robertson walked away with a reported $100 million when he sold the controversial music-download site MP3.com to Vivendi in 2001.

Robertson subsequently raised the ire of Microsoft, when he started low-cost operating-system vendor Lindows, prompting a lawsuit from Redmond and subsequent settlement resulting in a name-change to Linspire.

While he's been under the radar for the past few years, Robertson is back with a trio of startups: AnywhereCD, MP3tunes.com, and SIPphone.

Lest anyone think Robertson has shyed away from controversy amid the beginnings of a possible second Web bubble, think again. Online music vendor AnywhereCD had a recent legal tussle with Warner Music.

His MP3tunes.com business is intent on breaking what Robertson sees as the proprietary stranglehold of the iTunes of the world. MP3tunes offers a personal online music locker, through which users can access their music files from any location or platform.

Robertson also looks askance at Apple's iPhone, preferring what he sees as the open model followed by the Symbian-based Nokia platform. His third startup, the VoIP venture SIPphone, offers its Gizmo VoIP servces on Nokia devices, among others. Robertson chatted about these threads in our interview:

InformationWeek: Why did Warner Music and AnywhereCD get into litigation? [Warner took issue with AnywhereCD's selling of MP3 copies of its albums.]

Robertson: On the face of it, [we're] selling albums at full price. That was how I pitched it to all the record labels. I said, “Listen, if people have the CDs, they have perfect digital copies." So I’m not giving them anything they don’t already have as soon as they buy the CD.

Understanding Warner’s reaction requires you to understand that the record labels have a real fear that the whole world will go open format, and with it, they will lose enormous control of various channels that they sell through. The fear isn't that a guy who buys a CD through AnywhereCD suddenly has files and is going to go onto a peer-to-peer network. Their fear is, that this tidal wave, with Apple and EMI, and AnywhereCD selling the whole Warner Music library, will create a push where DRM is left behind.

InformationWeek: But hasn’t that horse already left the barn?

Robertson: Not in their minds. They believe that, if the technology companies would get their act together, then they could make all these pieces work together and DRM could be interoperable, but the technology companies just haven’t made it a big enough priority.

InformationWeek: Do you think that’s ever going to happen?

Robertson: I think it’s a pipe dream that you’ll have interoperable DRM. If you look at the last decade, you see countless initiatives--backed by big companies like Microsoft, IBM, Sun, and Toshiba. They’ve dumped, collectively, probably over a billion dollars into this, and really there’s nothing to show for this. There’s not even one mild success, where they took two disparate DRMs and brought them together.

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