The buzz on Napster has been intense, and it is entirely deserved. Set up six months ago, the Web site offers a groundbreaking technology which allows users to trade and search for MP3s (free downloadable files containing musical performances). Before Napster, the typical online music fan had to spend hours milling about different search engines to find where to download a particular song. Now, the process has been simplified: A fan can just type in the name of the desired song, click on the desired version, and instantly download it.
The software available at Napster has sent shockwaves through the industry — some have even predicted that the Web site is the end of the music business as we know it.
Napster was sued in December by the Recording Industry Assn. of America, which argues that the site promotes piracy and copyright infringement. In addition, Napster has been banned on almost 200 college campuses because of the amount of Internet resources that were being chewed up by music-crazed students.
Controversy aside (and the issues are extensively detailed on the Web site), the fact remains that Napster offers music fans who are tired of searching through chaotic MP3 listings an amazing piece of software. The site can help track down just about any song. Best of all for fans, it then lets them download the song for free.
In essence, Napster has built a digital music library by cleverly accumulating titles from its users own MP3 libraries. The MusicShare software can be downloaded from the Web site in less than a minute. Once the software is configured, the user can begin searching for MP3s that are kept on the hard drives of all the people who have previously downloaded the program. Users can turn off this sharing option, but judging by the popularity of the site, few do. Any songs that you download via Napster can then be retrieved from others via your computer.
During the set up of the program, there are options that allow the user to work around firewalls that are typically put up to protect networks. According to information on the Web site, security provisions embedded in the software prevent anything besides MP3s from being shared. Ingenious, especially considering how easy it is to convert just about any piece of music out there to MP3 format. (There are almost 800,000 files currently available for download on the Web site.)
A search for “Sympathy for the Devil,” for instance, turned up 57 versions of the song. Besides the original rendition by the Rolling Stones, there were additional takes by Guns N’ Roses, Jane’s Addiction and Pearl Jam available for download.
The interface to download the MP3s is simple. After the site finds the song in the search window, download can begin with a click on the same page that gives the results of the search.
A version of “Sympathy for the Devil” that comes in at over six minutes when played took just a little more than three minutes to download at broadband speed. With a 56K dial-up, the pace will be agonizingly slow, but no more so than downloading an MP3 from any other Web site.
Napster comes with an internal MP3 player, so users who don’t already have one on their computers can listen to songs right after the download is complete.
The MusicShare software on Napster comes in a format that can only be used by Windows-based computers. But a group of knockoff Web sites, such as www.macster.com, have popped up that offer versions of the software in other forms, like for the Macintosh and Linux operating systems.
With the popularity of Napster, certain problems with congestion do occur. It sometimes takes more than one try to log on to the servers that facilitate the search software, and the number of search results is limited to 250.
Even slower than log-on time, though, are the courts. In a suit filed right after Napster was launched by college kid Shawn Fanning in November, the RIAA argued that the Web site is in flagrant violation of the law. And the penalties Napster faces could be severe: up to $100,000 per song traded via the site’s software.
But Napster contends it’s within the law because the company only offers the software to search and trade MP3s. The actual digital songs that are being downloaded are located on servers that have no connection to the company whatsoever. If anything, the controversy adds a bit of illicit thrill to the MP3 hunt. After all, music fans figure that the odds of the Internet cops going after the little guy are long. And that’s the recording industry’s nightmare.