Michael Robertson, music’s bad boy CEO, is at it again, causing trouble for music publishers, Microsoft, and just the overall Computing Establishment. The CEO of Linspire (formerly known as Lindows until Microsoft’s legal team had their way with him) has come out swinging with new enhancements to the company’s operating system, adopting a pay-as-you model to download Linux applications. The fervent hope: to make Linux into a desktop operating environment that anyone, including your mother, could use. And to use Linux as a wedge to get back into making a better digital music experience.
We spoke to Robertson at his annual Destkop Linux Summit show in Del Mar, California last week. “My original vision for Lindows was not to create an operating system but to create the CNR warehouse. So we adopted the CNR model and said we will do for Linux apps what we did for music.” CNR stands for Click-and-buy: it is a catalog of various Linspire-ready applications that are available, some for free and others for a small fee. You merely bring up a Web browser, click on the application that you want, and once you register and provide your payment details, you can download at will. Think of iTunes for software, and you aren’t far off.
“We quickly discovered [several years ago] that all of the Linux versions at the time were awful for consumers and in such a sorry state. It was a mess, a disaster. And we realized that you pretty much have to control the OS to make CNR work with any kind of reliability. So we were forced into the OS business.”
Over the course of the 20-minute interview, which you can download the audio recording <here>, Robertson was at times jocular and caustic. Linspire ships with a built-in suite of Office-like applications that can read and write Microsoft file formats, along with their own Web browser based on the Mozilla code base. “I love that people are just wetting themselves over Firefox, that is just great. We have been saying that Mozilla is better for two years, and finally the world has woke up to Firefox.”
Earlier in the day, Robertson was the featured keynote at the conference. While he began his keynote 30 minutes late, he immediately moved into a high-energy pitch: “People won’t say I am crazy anymore. We will show you the enormous distance that we have come.” He made fun of Linux’s shortcomings by showing pictures of early software screens and saying “back in the day, we didn’t have a screen capture program. We had to take pictures of the screen with an actual camera.”
Robertson introduced a beta version 5.0 of Linspire to the theme of the Hawaii 5-0 TV show. Clearly, this riff went over most of the audience’s heads, but the bouncing jingle still caught hold and was received warmly by the crowd of about 500 people attending the three-day conference.
“This is the product that Linux needs to go mainstream,” said Robertson. He promised that it will be shipping within the next month. He claimed that Linspire 5.0 was “at feature parity with XP,” and crowed, “Microsoft hasn’t put out a new version in three years and probably won’t for another three.”
The new version sports significant enhancements, including better wireless and Windows networking support. We were able to boot the beta on one of our Gigabyte laptops and be up and running within 15 minutes, with just a few mouse clicks and without having to resort to the Linux command line to make any real adjustments. On another white box it also recognized the hardware and ran effortlessly. The biggest drawback was a lack of printer support, but it does come with numerous printer drivers
The companion announcement to the new Linspire version is a new set of tools to download and organize digital music. These included a new Web-based music store, a new music appliance, and synchronization software to transport your songs between various music players, PC music applications, and new audio gear that run over wired and wireless networks in your home. Clearly, this is Robertson’s focus.
During the keynote, Robertson demonstrated a new site called Mp3Tunes.com that charges 88 cents per song. The site is operated by a separate company and he is also the CEO. The biggest difference between this site and numerous other music sites is that there are no restrictions on how many times you use the mp3 downloaded file. Robertson called it buying, rather than renting, your music.
“I didn’t like the direction that the music world was going,” he said during his keynote. “We decided for no DRM [digital rights management]. I wanted something so that my sons would find it easy to get music and listen to it anywhere. We need to push the world to an open standard, and that is MP3.” In our interview, he elaborated: “The only way you can get consumers to accept DRM is if you force it on them. And if you get your music via file sharing or by buying a CD, you don’t have any [usage] restrictions. And these options aren’t going away. We aren’t going to stop selling CDs for a few decades, and file sharing is going to be with us for a very long time.”
Interestingly, the startup of Mp3Tunes.com is déjà vu all over again for Robertson, who started the first mp3.com download site in the mid 1990s before selling the operation to a music publisher, after “building it into the largest mp3 music site in the world.” The site currently offers over 300,000 song titles “probably from no big name artists” said Robertson. “But that is okay, because people have plenty of CDs.” Clearly, what Robertson is banking on is to make the easiest system for consumers to manage their music libraries, and by removing any DRM restrictions (iTunes, for example, limits how many times a consumer can download a particular song after paying for it by requiring each computer to be registered to a particular user) and supporting a range of music devices and software programs.
At the center of this music ecosystem is a low-cost application called Mp3Beamer. This is another application that runs on top of Linspire and can turn any PC into a media ripping and storage unit. At the show, reseller sub300.com was demonstrating SFF white boxes that they built with the Linspire software. They could quickly rip and catalog music CDs with no operator intervention.
As part of this effort, Robertson’s crew has also written some code that works on both Windows and Mac versions of iTunes, allowing you to synchronize your songs that you download with the Mp3Beamer. During the keynote, Robertson demonstrated songs that were ripped from a CD to the Beamer box, and then transferred to Windows and Linspire PCs as well as an iPod and a cell phone.
The Beamer box represents to Robertson the beginning of a new direction for consumers to “have lots of dedicated computers around you servicing your needs. Where we differ from Microsoft’s vision is on two fronts. First, I don’t think you have one machine that does everything in the world. I think it is the opposite, with lots of machines that are dedicated to specific tasks and do them well. The future holds lots of appliance devices. Second, it is all about – for us – open standards and open formats. “Whatever device you use, we gotta give you an interface to your music,” he said during our interview.
Ironically, one of the open formats that he has embraced is Universal Plug and Play, enabling various media devices to work with the Beamer and his system. “Microsoft still doesn’t support UPnP in their media center edition, but we support it in our beamer.”
Robertson has gotten older and wiser in the intervening years since he first launched mp3.com. “I think the record industry has had a real changing of the guard. With almost every record label, old management is out and new management is in. It isn’t a coincidence that suddenly Apple could get a license to sell every song for a dollar. The record labels have come a long way.”
Will Linux become the desktop for the masses? We’ll see how stable and capable Linspire 5.0 is. But in the meantime, Robertson is once again challenging some established notions and striking out in some promising directions.