Oboe is your iPod everywhere
Moving in while Apple dozed
Analysis Now we know why MP3.com founder Michael Robertson hired 'DVD Jon' Lech Johansen.
As we reported earlier today, the serial entrepreneur's company MP3Tunes has launched Oboe, a limitless online locker for the iPod that lets you play your digital music collection from anywhere, with a web browser and an internet connection. And not just iTunes - it supports WMA and Ogg files too.
Oboe preserves your iTunes playlists and drops into iTunes as a simple plug-in: and it uses Bonjour (formerly Rendezvous) system services.
Oboe isn't a file sharing service, but it opens up lots of intriguing platform possibilities - Robertson pledged to open up the APIs to third party developers and device manufacturers.
And rather more obviously, Apple could well have introduced such a service as a premium extension of its .Mac subscription offering, but didn't. Robertson told us he wants to put some innovation back into a market that has stagnated since Apple launched its iTunes Music Store two years ago.
First things first. though, how is Oboe legal? You'll recall that at MP3.com, Robertson offered a service that allowed people to listen to their music collections anywhere too, but this was thwarted in the courts by the Recording Industry Ass. of America.
"At MP3.com we failed in the courts because we were using music that we'd previously digitized ourselves, and the RIAA said that you copied our music, so you violated our license," he told us today.
"This time consumers are uploading their own music to our store. With Oboe it's like a photo service, and customers are responsible for uploading their content."
Because Oboe isn't anonymous - it's a pay-for service that requires credit cards as authentication - Robertson doesn't see copyright abuse as being a big problem. Sharing isn't permitted and the company has an incentive to go after login abuse because a shared login is a potential user lost.
It's similar in some ways to Orb, which allows you to stream music to any device - including phones - as well as share pictures. But Orb doesn't maintain a copy on its servers.
What about the unlimited storage commitment?
Again, Robertson doesn't see this as a problem - or at least a problem your $40 a year subscription can't cover.
"It's like an all you can eat buffet. Say it's $8 a meal - for every Homer Simpson who eats $16 worth of food, there are many more who eat no more than $4.94 worth."
Most of the early demand is from iPod owners simply wanting a backup service.
But one intriguing cultural side effect of Oboe, if it catches on, is that it makes DRM much more noticeable to the consumer. Right now DRM has two major nuisances: the nuisance of locks and keys on the music files, and the nuisance of interoperability woes between incompatible DRM mechanisms.
In Oboe, Robertson says, your Fairplay-locked or WMA-locked songs are much more noticeable.
"We don't adjust any DRM. It probably surprises people as we hired DVD Jon, but we don't take on or add any DRM to the songs, so some of the functionality will work and some won't. A DRM file will show up in italics and won't play unless the computer is authenticated." Oboe leaves it to the iTunes or Windows music manager to decide.
"It will magnify the difference between DRM and non-DRM worlds, and between different DRM systems."
DRM sore exposed
Which is fascinating. Right now, for all the hot air blown around the issue, we don't know what level of nuisance the public will accept. There's a good case to be made the public has yet how much of a nuisance it really is, because the incompatibility issue has yet to be exposed.
As Robertson says,
"You have to break out of the Windows world or the iTunes world to see the problems of DRM."
"With our next release of Oboe you'll be able to move the same music library to phones, and PDAs, and tablets, and that will really magnify the difference for DRM music. So if you don't have an Apple car stereo you can't play all the music you've paid for from Apple."
"Like you, I don't want DRM and ultimately the market will decide. I want all my music on all devices from any vendor."
Here's where the Oboe platform pitch gets interesting.
Nokia launched a low-cost Wi-Fi tablet this month - demand is currently outstripping Nokia's supply - and it pushing it as a pocket browsing and internet radio gadget. But once you've got your music collection in a cloud, your Linux tablet becomes an iPod - so long as you have a Wi-Fi connection. And that device doesn't have to be a tablet.
Robertson says he'll make the Oboe APIs available to developers.
"Absolutely you'll see published APIs and sync their hardware client whether it's an MP3 alarm clock or a car player."
While Robertson pays tribute to Apple for "doing a phenomenal job" by taking the lead with digital music, there are huge areas of demand it hasn't satisfied, while it futzes with ephemera like video.
Most of the high end phones Nokia has lined up for a Q1 and Q2 launch next year - the single chip E series and N series - are Wi-Fi enabled, and an Oboe subscription lessens the need to carry around an iPod too.
We'll see how Apple, and the music industry, responds to the gauntlet Robertson has thrown down. ®