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MP3tunes throws music locker doors open

Company launches a free service designed to lure music fans--but it could have challenges ahead, analyst says.

Michael Robertson, one of Silicon Valley's most prolific company creators, continues to plug along with so-called music lockers.

His most recent music company, MP3tunes, began offering the lockers for free last week in an apparent attempt to draw interest from consumers. Music lockers enable a customer to store music on a company's servers and later retrieve songs by having them streamed to any PC or Web-enabled device.

The service, called Oboe Free, allows a customer to store up to 1,000 songs--about the same capacity as Apple Computer's 4-gigabyte Nano digital music player. Serious music fans can upgrade to one of MP3tunes' two premium services for even more storage. For $19.95, MP3tunes offers twice the song capacity as Oboe Free, and for $39.95 a customer receives unlimited storage.

However, the public has yet to show much interest in music lockers or subscription services. Apple's iPod and iTunes reign supreme in digital music, and everybody else trails far behind.

As competitors continue to search for Apple's weak spot, they appear to be trying to undercut the company on price. On Tuesday, SpiralFrog announced a deal with record label Universal Music Group to offer songs for free. The start-up is planning to make money by selling ads that will appear as customers download music.

Robertson said another one of Apple's vulnerabilities is its insistence on locking people's music into Apple products and services. In an interview last week, he said he sees a day coming when consumers will want to listen on multiple devices such as Web-enabled home entertainment and car-audio systems. As it stands now, iTunes users can't move their music to devices made by anyone but Apple.

"We want manufactures to play nice together," said Robertson, who also founded pioneering music site, Linspire and SIPphone. "Today they don't."

MP3tunes' software transfers a person's music library from any device or service, including iTunes, to a music locker. The software even saves playlists.

Gartner analyst Mike McGuire said that the idea of personal-use storage is intriguing because people can grab their music even if they don't have their listening device handy: Go into any Internet cafe, plug headphones into a PC, and it's boogie time.

But he sees plenty of challenges confronting the nearly 2-year-old MP3tunes. First, the service thus far has found a small audience among tech-savvy types. To stick a toe into mainstream adoption, McGuire thinks MP3tunes needs to be integrated with another offering "so it's easier for a consumer to add lockers as a premium part of their music or content service."

"I could see MP3tunes attracting a service provider who might want to add features as opposed to building them on their own," McGuire said.

Another hurdle is convincing music labels that the lockers will stay locked, he said. For MP3tunes to distribute music to multiple devices, the songs must be free of any digital rights management software. That means the songs can easily be shared, which could make music executives nervous. Robertson, however, said they needn't be.

"You can't really stop this kind of behavior. I mean, people are sharing music right now," Robertson said. "But it doesn't do us any good either if a million people share one locker. We have controls in place that tell us when someone else other than the user is downloading music from a locker."