MP3.com founder to Jobs: open up iTunes and iPods. Do you agree?

Michael Robertson, who founded MP3.com, knows a few things about selling downloaded music over the Internet.
Written by Russell Shaw, Contributor on

Michael Robertson, who founded MP3.com, knows a few things about selling downloaded music over the Internet.

As such, Michael has the cred to challenge Apple CEO Steve Jobs when Steve says that Digital Rights Management is outmoded and that the major music labels need to be more open-minded about technology and security for downloading and multiple-device compatibility for their digital tracks.

Now Michael fires off a post directly in front of Steve and Apple's bow. Essentially, what Mike is saying to Steve is that it isn't totally convincing for Steve to preach openness unless he, Steve JObs of famously proprietary Apple, adapts an open model himself.

"My vision is that customers should be able to mix and match the type of computer, music software, retail option and music devices they want to use," Michael writes on his blog. "No single company is the best in every product category so consumer choice ensures the best music experience. Here are some immediate actions Apple could take to help push the industry in that direction."

Next, Michael offers Steve a four-step roadmap on what he ought to do to push Apple in "that direction." Let's take a look at that roadmap now.

1) Start selling some content in MP3 format in the iTunes store.

It's my understanding that Apple has a license from certain content providers that allow tracks to be sold in the MP3 format, like the CDBaby catalog. While the major labels might be insisting on DRM files, that isn't the case with many indie labels and other music providers. Making those songs available for purchase in the consumer friendly MP3 format would mean that some songs from the iTunes store would be compatible on every MP3 player. The big criticism of the iTunes store, which has spurned possible government action, is the fact that purchases only play on iPods. By selling MP3s in the iTunes store, files become interoperable with any player. It will be a minority of files, but according to your letter, major labels control only 70% of music distributed. Therefore, if a significant percentage of the remainder are made available in MP3 format, this would have an impact.
2) Publish the database format for iPods so other music software can be used.

Files stored on iPods are done so in a proprietary database structure that Apple does not reveal. The only software that can reliably move files to/from the iPod is iTunes. Thus, iPod owners are forced to use iTunes software exclusively. There are many good media managers available that I'm sure people would like to have work with their iPods. By publishing the database structure for iPods these music managers to interact with iPods. This would not mean licensing the DRM that wraps each music file, so it should not affect security in any way.

3) Open the doors for iTunes software to work seamlessly with other stores.

Today the iTunes software is tied solely to your iTunes store. These two platforms converse over the net with a secret language. It's not complicated, but it's also not public. So iTunes customers are tied only to your store and iPods only work seamlessly with that store. There is a growing list of great online music stores which sell MP3 tracks such as eClassical, Magnatune, Broadjam and Wippit. By revealing the language or API that your store uses, other stores could use that same technology. Meaning, they could sell songs that load directly into iTunes software and from there sync to iPods.
4) Make iTunes software for Linux.

I talked to you a few years ago about making iTunes work on Linux. Apple made the leap to Microsoft Windows by releasing iTunes for that platform. Porting iTunes to Linux would be a relatively easy job and give people more flexibility in their choice of operating system. A Linux company I founded called Linspire would even do the engineering for free if engineering resources were an issue.
I hope you'll consider taking these actions - none of which require approval of the music industry, nor require you to license your Fairplay DRM technology that you see as problematic. All of these actions will demonstrate that you want a world where consumers have options as to where they buy and play their music; not to mention, you'll be putting Apple's leadership where your pen is.

Those are instigatory words. Still, I wonder if Steve Jobs has it in him to follow even some of that device, and treat digital playback as, more or less, an open platform. I have my doubts.

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