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Storage for a Song

Two new online storage services may bring holiday cheer – and a lot of songs – to music lovers.

New offerings from MP3Tunes and Real Networks unveiled in the last 10 days are intended to change the way people interact with their music libraries – and build a new business around digital music.

MP3Tunes’ Oboe service and Real Networks’ Rhapsody.com service allow people to purchase and access music through a standard Web browser on any computer – regardless of whether their music is stored on that computer. It’s an innovative step for digital music, where the industry giant, Apple’s iTunes, restricts users to a limited number of computers on which they can access the service.

These new offerings, using different approaches, attempt to break that model. Of the two, the Oboe service is the most technically intriguing – and will probably resonate most with consumers.

Michael Robertson, CEO of MP3Tunes.com, is the man behind the new Oboe service. He’s been on the frontlines of legal (and illegal) online music efforts since the mid-1990s when he founded MP3.com. His latest effort combines some nifty techie tricks with the dual trends of cheapening storage and broadband growth.

Oboe functions as an online music storage “locker,” similar to the way Flickr works for online photo storage. When a user signs up for Oboe (the stripped-down version is free, the full-featured service runs $39.95 per year), the service searches his or her hard drive for music files and uploads them into an Oboe account. Users can then access their music collections and stream songs from any computer with an Internet connection and a browser.

If nothing else, Oboe can serve as an automated music backup program, preventing music lovers from losing an entire library if a hard drive fails. For instance, if an iTunes drive crashes, all its downloaded songs must be repurchased, assuming backups haven’t been made. The Oboe service works on Mac, Linux, and Windows machines, and Robertson says that more than 5,000 people have signed up for it in the first week of operation.

Oboe can be used with any music software program; but, acknowledging the popularity of iTunes, the team at MP3Tunes created a link that sits inside the iTunes software, directing users to their Oboe lockers. Simply clicking on the link uploads all songs from iTunes into an Oboe locker. (Songs purchased from iTunes can be played back only on a computer that has the iTunes software, though.)

Oboe is similar to a previous online storage service by Robertson, My.MP3.com, which essentially got MP3.com sued out of existence after the record industry filed suit against it for violating copyright law. The difference this time, says Robertson, is that users must upload the songs from their computer to Oboe. (With My.MP3.com, when a user inserted a CD into a computer, someone at MP3.com headquarters ripped that CD into the user’s online account.) “Our system is no different than AOL or Comcast giving you storage space when you sign up for their ISP service,” he says. “Ours is tailored for music, but at the end of the day it’s an online service.”

Given that Apple CEO Steve Jobs is noted for controlling anything to do with the company’s products (Robertson calls it “an iMonopoly”), how was Robertson able to link into the iTunes software? He won’t say. He does say that Jon Johansen, a recent hire at MP3Tunes, who gained notoriety (and legal trouble) for circumventing the encryption algorithm that prevented DVDs from playing on Linux machines, wasn’t involved in the effort. (Apple representatives did not respond to multiple attempts to reach them for comment.)

Meanwhile, the beta-launch of Real Networks’ Rhapsody.com marks the first service for Linux and Macintosh users who want to experiment with subscription-based online music programs.

The parent service, Rhapsody, required a downloaded software client, the Real One player and a monthly subscription fee. Signing up for this older, full-featured service gives users access to more than a million songs in a typical all-you-can-listen format. Rhapsody currently has 1.3 million users.

With the new online-based Rhapsody.com, users of Firefox, Safari (Mac), and Internet Explorer can listen to 25 song streams per month and to 25 different online radio stations for free. Like Oboe, Rhapsody.com users can access the music through any major operating system on any computer.

“We wanted to give users the least amount of friction in accessing the service,” says Karim Meghji, vice president of music services for Real Networks. “We [also] wanted to reach out to the Linux and the Mac communities. This is a good start.”

Creating a version of the software for the minority of users who make up the Linux and Mac desktop community is a laudable effort. Yet it’s clear from this initial launch that Rhapsody online has a way to go to match the award-winning quality of its namesake. Possibly its most glaring omission is the inability to access saved music, or a playlist, through Rhapsody.com. Also, with the impressive work happening around technologies such as AJAX, which give browsers near-desktop-application power, one wonders why there’s need for a client download at all.

“I’ll be upfront,” says Meghji. “This is the beginning, not the end. We would have liked to do more and there is more race for us to run.”

MP3Tunes and Real Networks are taking different approaches to the concept of having personalized music storage anywhere online. Neither will upend Apple’s dominant position. But they are attempting to bring more people, including Linux users, into the world of digital music and to offer more choices. And that’s a happy tune for consumers.

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