Face(book)ing the music

Cloud Facebook is rumored to be set to unveil major new media-related features at the f8 developer conference on Thursday, including partnerships with seven or eight leading music streaming services and the introduction of a music/movie/TV “ticker” to home pages that will let your friends know what you’re watching or listening to.

According to reports, a key element of the new streaming music integrations will be audio “bridging” between otherwise competing services. The idea is that, if you’re listening to Rdio, and a track goes up on your profile, a friend who uses MOG for music would be able to click on the track and listen to the same song even if they’ve never subscribed to Rdio.

It’s not clear from the reports exactly how that bridging will work, from either a technical or a rights perspective. Will competing streaming services need to have identical rights deals with the labels for a bridge to work? Will Facebook itself host and stream any music? How will conflicting DRMs and authentication systems be reconciled? 

Presumably, we’ll know more after Thursday. But if the audio bridging feature functions at all like the rumors suggest, it raises some intriguing questions about what Facebook may ultimately have in mind for video.

The idea that a user could acquire rights to certain content from one service provider or retailer, that would then be recognized and honored by another service provider, with a platform provider in between to serve as mediator, sounds a lot like the design of UltraViolet. In this case, however, Facebook is playing the role of UltraViolet, but without the unwieldy bulk of an industry-wide, multi-member consortium to complicate matters.

Instead, Facebook appears to have negotiated separately and directly with the various music streaming services, using the lure of its 750 million-strong worldwide user base as leverage to get everyone to play nicely together. It’s not even clear that the record labels or music publishers were involved in the negotiations.

So far as I know, no one in UltraViolet is talking about enabling sharing of movies among friends; it’s more of a personal rights locker that will allow individuals to access their content using various devices and delivery platforms. But Facebook’s music plan does point up the fact that you don’t necessarily need a three-humped camel like UltraViolet to mediate among service providers, retailers and devices. What you need is a ubiquitous platform with enough users to force the issue.

Speaking of users, all those Facebook music users are about to be weaned on a level of functionality and interoperability in cloud-based media services that will no doubt quickly come to seem “normal,” and to be expected in other services. Facebook, in other words (no doubt soon to be followed by Google+ and others) will is poised to establish a new effective baseline for interoperability, against which other cloud-based media services and providers will be measured, whether they think they should be, or not.