Michael Robertson Is Calling, But Will Anybody Answer?

12/19/08Follow @bvbigelow

If nothing else, Michael Robertson gets credit for stickin’ it to the establishment. Maybe it’s because he was born in 1967, amid America’s flaring protests. Maybe it’s just a result of his penchant for libertarian views.

When I saw an announcement earlier this week from Robertson about GizmoCall, his new browser-based calling service, my first thought was, “This looks like another one of Michael Robertson’s guerilla campaigns.”

When I bounced that off Robertson in a call Wednesday while he was finishing lunch, he replied, “Right. That’s where the money is. Whether it’s telephone companies, or music companies, [or Microsoft---let's not forget Microsoft], it’s where disruptive technologies can add value.”

Michael RobertsonThat’s the way many entrepreneurs think. But where other entrepreneurs approach technology disruption as a delicate matter, akin to tickling a dragon’s tail, Robertson seems to relish a more direct provocation.

As the founder of MP3.com, Robertson was at the center of a legal firestorm that pitted his dot-com startup against major record labels and the Recording Industry Association of America. Of course, he had become an overnight sensation as San Diego’s most-prominent dot-com millionaire in 1999, when MP3.com raised more than $370 million in its IPO.

As MP3.com’s largest shareholder, Robertson pocketed an estimated $103 million when he sold his company to French media conglomerate Vivendi in 2001 for $372 million. Since then, he has self-funded most of his new ventures.

Later in 2001, Robertson started a new business around technology for a Linux-based operating system intended to compete against Microsoft Windows. He provocatively called his startup Lindows, unleashing a predictable flurry of trademark lawsuits from Microsoft. The software giant, which apparently feared losing its Windows trademark, later paid $20 million to settle the case—and as part of the deal, Robertson changed the name of his company to Linspire. The business was acquired earlier this year by Xandros.

Robertson started another venture in 2003 called SIPphone to develop free VOIP (Voice Over Internet Protocol) software to compete with Skype. The technology was based on SIP, or Session Initiation Protocol, a network protocol often used for VOIP. Robertson initially called the peer-to-peer network he was creating the Gizmo Project, but he now uses Gizmo5 for both the network and the proprietary free software used for the network. (SIPphone got $6 million in venture funding two years ago, in a round led by New York’s Dawntreader Ventures.)

On Monday, Robertson launched a new version of the Gizmo5 technology, dubbed GizmoCall.com, which enables users to log onto a Web site to make VOIP calls. The Web-based service can be used with any computer running a Windows, Macintosh or Linux operating system.

“Our goal is to make it as easy as possible to make a call on your computer, and to offer it at very low cost.” Robertson says the new service allows users to make phone calls to any phone number or Gizmo5 or SIP address. The Flash-based call service is free for SIP computer numbers, and costs 1.9 cents per minute using Gizmo5 credits.

The way Robertson sees it, “The public switched telephone networks are crashing into PC-Internet technology, and the Internet is going to win because it’s better, cheaper, faster and easier.” In this economy, he predicts people who are tired of paying $65 a month for mobile phone service will look for cheaper options for making calls.

Or maybe not.

Robertson described the offering on his “Michael’s Minute” blog, which includes an online survey that enables readers who read his blog to say whether or not they agree with him. Of the 114 people who had voted on his GizmoCall.com idea as of Thursday evening, only 9.6 percent (just 11 voters) agreed that it was a good idea, while 89.5 percent disagreed and less than 1 percent had no opinion.

Bruce V. Bigelow is the editor of Xconomy San Diego. You can e-mail him at bbigelow@xconomy.com or call (619) 669-8788 Follow @bvbigelow

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