Peter Kafka

Recent Posts by Peter Kafka

Here's Your iTunes in the Cloud, for Your iPhone–But From mSpot, Not Apple

At this point it seems pretty safe to say that we’re not getting any “iTunes in the cloud” music service from Apple in 2010. But you can get a version of that concept, on your iPhone, today, for free.

Apple has approved developer mSpot‘s music app, which does what Apple hasn’t done yet but may well do at some point: It takes your music from your PC, moves it to a server and lets you pull down tunes to your iPhone whenever you want.

Or at least in the immediate future. Given that mSpot has yet to reach any licensing deals with music labels or publishers, I’m not sure how long the service can keep going. But we can get back to that in a minute.

First the details: MSpot lets you synch up to two gigabytes of music from your hard drive to its servers, and then stream it via another PC’s browser, or download it to your phone via 3G.

Because mSpot compresses your files, those two gigs will translate into a lot more music on your phone (at a much lower fidelity) than they do on your computer. But if you want more storage you can get another 40 gigs for $3.99 a month.

This is roughly the same idea that both Apple and Google have discussed with the music industry for much of 2010, but neither of those two heavyweights has the licenses it needs to launch. How can mSpot pull it off?

Good question. The answer is that mSpot CEO Daren Tsui argues that he doesn’t need a license, for a variety of reasons.

I’ll spare you the technical details, but common sense supports his position–why shouldn’t you be able to move your music from one machine to another? And the law, via the Digital Millennium Copyright Act, may be on his side as well.

But so far the big labels have argued that the big guys do need licenses to offer cloud services (short version–they say that moving music to the cloud and back constitutes a new use). And Tsui has in fact been trying to get an agreement with the labels for much of this year.

He’s already had this service running on Google’s Android platform since late June without a legal problem, so that can give him some confidence that the labels won’t take him to court. But that’s not a guarantee.

For starters, the labels are already suing Michael Robertson’s MP3tunes, which uses a similar concept. And it’s not uncommon for the labels to negotiate with music start-ups, then move on to lawsuits if things hit an impasse.

And if Tsui does strike a deal, that means he needs to start paying the labels. How’s he going to do that and keep offering the service for free? By offering new paid options and cutting the music guys in on a piece of that revenue, he says.

So we’ll see! Note that Spotify, which has a lot of buzz, 700,000 paying users and some deep-pocketed investors, has yet to get its music service licensed in the U.S.

And mSpot is a much smaller fry. The Android app has a million downloads so far and some 500,000 registered users. And the 6-year-old company raised $2.3 million in 2005, and that’s it. But Tsui says mSpot is profitable on revenue from other media services it sells.

Here’s hoping he gets to spend that money building cool stuff, not hiring lawyers.

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The problem with the Billionaire Savior phase of the newspaper collapse has always been that billionaires don’t tend to like the kind of authority-questioning journalism that upsets the status quo.

— Ryan Chittum, writing in the Columbia Journalism Review about the promise of Pierre Omidyar’s new media venture with Glenn Greenwald