Tuesday, June 12, 2007

I bashed mTraks the other day, and mTraks still has potential to turn things around, so it's only fair I also share my opinions of a site I think is pretty much doomed: Lala. You may have heard of Lala from its days of facilitating the trading of compact discs, or you may have seen the news stories last week about the latest addition to their business offerings: Unlimited free streaming music, with the hope of selling you DRM-free music downloads, sent directly to your iPod.

I must admit, I was intrigued, and excited, when I first heard this news. Warner Bros. is said to be prepared to start selling DRM-free tracks on Lala in a matter of weeks. And the music locker and online streaming aspects of the new service were interesting, too (in a nutshell, you upload your music to Lala, and can stream that music as much as you want, and can also stream any music from music labels that have an agreement with Lala). My first disappointment came on learning that transferring songs from Lala directly to your iPod isn't an optional service, but a requirement; songs purchased are sent directly to your iPod, and cannot be stored locally on your PC. This I don't like. In multiple interviews, Lala's founder, Bill Nguyen, points out that customers like to own their music, rather then rent it. Call me crazy, but one part of ownership of an mp3 file is the concept that I can put it on my computer. Yes, I can still hear it, in streaming form, through Lala, but I wish to listen to all the music I own through iTunes; why should I have to change my listening habits to fit your business model?

My aggravation at the inability to download files to my computer is but one aspect of the main problem with Lala: They brag that they are iPod-compatible, but they are making you give up the iPod/iTunes link to use their service. To transfer purchased music to your iPod, you have to use their software. Seeing as the free iTunes for Windows software was an integral part of Apple's marketing push for the iPod, letting Windows users like myself experience the joy of iTunes (iTunes sold me on the iPod), why does Lala think most iTunes users would willingly give up what is, for the most part, a fantastic music player for whatever they've come up with? I've found their plug-in software works okay for streaming music from their website, but once I try to access my music locker, my computer system slows to a crawl and becomes rather unstable. After first reviewing their new way of selling music downloads, I thought I might buy songs from them, then use one of the many available iPod-hacking computer programs to get the songs onto my computer. But now that I've experienced their software a bit, I can say with confidence there's no way in hell they're getting anywhere near my iPod. Indeed, the knowledge that they want to get their grubby mitts on my iPod encourages me to not even use their streaming music offering.

Which is probably fine by Lala, I doubt they want another freeloader running up their licensing fees, with no intention of purchasing anything. But I'm sure some people will be interested in their streaming audio offering, so let's take a look at it. I've availed myself of MP3tunes' music locker (formerly called Oboe, though they seem to have dropped that name), and when I reviewed Lala's similar offering, I wondered if the struggling company was doomed. I don't think MP3tunes has to worry. Both services allow you to stream music you own on any computer, but MP3tunes requires you to upload each and every file, while Lala only requires you to upload songs if the song isn't already in their database. This should be a huge advantage to Lala, as it took about two weeks of intermittent uploading to get all my music into my MP3tunes locker. But in practice, Lala's uploader doesn't work much better. I don't know how many of my songs were already on Lala, but it took about 15 hours to upload the music that wasn't found, and yet somehow less than half my music ultimately made it to Lala. No idea why that is.

So uploading is a hassle, and while I'm willing to put up with the hassle for MP3tunes, which primarily serves as a backup service (for me, at least, the streaming aspect is incidental), I'm not willing to deal with the trouble just to listen to streaming music (with mediocre fidelity) through Lala. And I don't think too many others will, either. Which might be good news for Lala, which has forecast owing $140 million in royalties over the next two years. If the service bombs, maybe they'll lose less money. But who can say? If they manage to make deals with more record labels, so that the whole uploading thing becomes irrelevant, maybe they truly can lose $140 million. But when losing $140 million is the upside, I'd say your business plan has problems.

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