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Getting Bad with Apple

Michael Robertson started and Linspire. Now he's taking on Apple and iTunes with BadApple.

Michael Robertson's reputation rests on the string of companies he's started, from to Linspire.

But that reputation stems at least as much from his habit of thumbing his nose at those in power. He has fought major lawsuits from the big record labels and Microsoft, losing tens of millions of dollars in the process, but ultimately coming out ahead each time.

He started the original in mid-1997, when the digital music phenomenon was just beginning to hit the cultural radar. The company was ultimately sued by the major labels and music publishers for copyright infringement, and was sold to Universal Music Group after striking settlement deals that neared $200 million. CNET Networks, the publisher of, now owns the domain name and uses it for an unrelated business.
I asked Steve Jobs to put FairPlay onto Linux and he said "no." I mean, flat-out no.

Robertson's latest target is Apple Computer, whose iPod music player and iTunes software currently dominate the digital music world nearly as successfully as Microsoft controls the PC operating system and office software markets. In midsummer, he quietly launched a site called BadFruit, which beat Apple CEO Steve Jobs to putting links to podcasts into iTunes with a piece of software called BadApple.

The latest version of the BadApple software available on that site now allows people to use Apple's iTunes software to sync their music collections with non-Apple MP3 players. Robertson says he's pursuing the project--an offshoot of his MP3Tunes music store, which sells independent music in MP3 format without copy protection--in order to encourage the development of interoperability between different music platforms.

This may not be his top priority. After all, he's also running Linspire, which provides a Linux-based operating system, and the Gizmo Project, a Skype competitor that offers free Net calling.

But as history has shown, it's worth watching what Robertson is doing, whatever it is. There's usually something about to happen.

Q: The BadApple project is something you're managing, right?
Robertson: Yes.

What's the idea behind the project?
Robertson: Well, I think there is a battle going on right now between, you know, proprietary formats and open standards. On one side of the war, you've got big corporations like Microsoft and Apple coming out with their FairPlay or some other highly misleading description of their technology, trying to battle for a proprietary world. DRM (digital rights management) of course is the big cornerstone of that. I believe it's up to technologists and people like myself to pull the world in the other direction, which is open standards.

I asked Steve Jobs to put FairPlay onto Linux and he said "no." I mean, flat-out no. That's not a world I want. I want a world where people can choose any hardware device they want, any operating system, and not have to re-buy their music every time they get a new device. I think open standards are the key to that. What we were trying to do with BadApple is pull the world more towards an open direction.

You initially provided podcasting support for iTunes, and the software now allows you to sync music players that are not iPods with iTunes. Is BadApple an umbrella for various different things, or is what we see now the end goal?
Robertson: No, it's not the end goal at all. I mean, I think it's just an example. Why shouldn't you be able to use any player, and shop at any store, and get your content in any format? Those are features, those are capabilities that consumers should have.

This is not just a tiny hack that we threw together. The goal here is to open the world and to force these big guys to interoperate, which they don't want to do.

Are you looking at other software programs such as Windows Media Player as well, then? Or are you mostly focused specifically on Apple at this point?
Robertson: Well, you know, the BadApple plug-in is focused on the iTunes universe because that's the leader today. But I think if you broaden your perspective and you look at what Microsoft is trying to do with their "Plays for sure" campaign, it's no different. The only difference is they haven't had as much success as Apple.

But Microsoft is still trying to lock in every hardware device into only their system, and that's not right. That's not the way the world should work.

Have you had any contact with Apple over this, or have they contacted you?
Robertson: No, no contact.

You know, that's not a business--just selling music to open-source fanatics or Linux users.

You have a history of running up against the biggest people in the spaces you're in, and then winding up in courts. Do you have any fear of that this time?
Robertson: Well, if you are asking me, will Apple sue us, I hope not, because what we are doing is the right thing.

But you know what, when you tangle with the big guys, sometimes you end up in court. That's why it's imperative for the technologists and the people like myself. Now is the time to plant the flag and stand up. Don't wait five years to the point where they will be unmovable.

How has the MP3Tunes project been going?
Robertson: It's been going good. It's so much different than, because at I was the leader. We were the leader by any measure that you had. It's almost like starting over with MP3Tunes, where you're like, OK, how do we get relevant, how do we get into the game so that we can have an impact?

It's a very different place to be, and so what we are focusing on now at MP3Tunes is looking at the new horizon. Is it getting music to your phone? Is it getting music to different devices? Is it interoperating? Those are areas I think MP3Tunes has to be a leader in to gain relevance.

Is the natural audience for MP3Tunes Linux users and people who are on the Linspire operating system? Have you had much success in reaching out to those people?
Robertson: Well, we have. I mean we get e-mail all the time from people who are saying, "Hey, thanks for selling music in MP3 formats." But, you know, that's not a business--just selling music to open-source fanatics or Linux users.

You really have to have much bigger goals than that. What we will do with MP3Tunes is hopefully what we did at, which is be innovative.

What do you see happening in the music business over the next year or two? We've had Apple dominating downloads and the subscription business coming on a little bit. But as you said, it is virtually all in proprietary formats. Where do you see that going?
Robertson: Well, first of all I would suggest that the only movement that we have had today is because of MP3 and P2P (peer to peer), meaning that the only reason you can buy songs one at a time today is because of MP3.

I've heard people say, "Well, FairPlay (Apple's copy-protection technology) was so good and Steve Jobs was so persuasive and that's why we got there," which is all hogwash. The only reason we got where we are is because MP3 and P2P have consistently put pressure on the industry to do something. I think that the only way we get to the next phase is if they continue to feel the heat from open standards and P2P.

Yes, Apple had some success, but that's still just a drop in the bucket. MP3 and even the success of P2P is going to push the music industry, and it may be that traditional revenues are going to have to keep being deteriorated before they, specifically the publishers, start offering licenses to allow people to do more innovative things with music. I have made no bones about what I think the world should be. I want all my music to live in the cloud and for me to have it wherever I am on any device.

That's where we will end up. Will it take three years, five years, 10 years? I don't know.