RealTime IT News

Much Ado About Napster

Wall and Main have been abuzz over U.S. District Judge Patel's ruling against music file swapping software firm Napster. By the looks of it, Her Honor has hammered the nail in the coffin for the poster child of peer-to-peer technology. But so what? I was a strong proponent that Napster was already washed up when it started aligning itself with record industry execs, because quite frankly, there's not much middle ground here.

Web enthusiasts adore Napster because it's free and easy to use. Fire it up, and compile a music collection that rivals any radio station. The tiny freeware also represents a thumbing of the nose at the recording industry establishment. But with any hot trend on the Internet, there's bound to be me-too competitors lickety-split.

Gnutella, affectionately named after that to-die-for German chocolate spread, Freenet, Scour Exchange - there are plenty of flavors to choose from. They all do pretty much the same thing with varying degrees of success. More than a dozen copycats are jockeying for attention from Gen-Xers and music buffs, but we're creatures of habit. And like rats on a dry poop deck, we won't jump ship until the water line meets our eyeballs.

Now that the clock is ticking on Napster's rickety future, download addicts are finally heading elsewhere for a fix. Gnutella seems an obvious choice, with no central servers to run afoul of the long arm of the law, and it's gaining popularity by the day. The only problem is, for fans of Napster, there's bound to be a hockey stick learning curve to use the program.

Since the program is the ugly stepchild of 21-year-old Justin Frankel's Nullsoft, bought by America Online for $100 million last year, the software comes with no instruction on how to use it. It's not very user friendly, and Gnutella's not nearly as reliable or efficient as its more famous rival. But it too is free, and once users familiarize themselves with how it works, Gnutella will be one of many peer-to-peer players that pick up right where Napster left off.

Faced with an apparent David and Goliath court brouhaha, David (no relation) Boies took software giant Microsoft out behind the woodshed as lead counsel to the government's antitrust case. Now representing Napster, Boies is one-for-two. Judge Marilyn Patel called Napster a monster and shot down every defense argument brought before her. The Recording Industry Association of America (RIAA) cheered the ensuing injunction, but all of this back-and-forth has done only one thing - showered file swapping technology with an incalculable amount of free publicity.

To simplify the argument, there are two factors involved in making file swapping a ubiquitous pastime for online aficionados. Think of it as the chicken and the egg. You need a bevy of users who have hundreds of thousands of files to swap. And you need a piece of software to facilitate the activity. Not too long ago, both seemed insurmountable.

Sure, people have been exchanging MP3s for years, but not without a substantial barrier to entry. Very few people had gigabyte hard drives stuffed with free music files. Now, that's all changed. There are entire libraries housed on peoples' PCs all over the world simply because of the publicity Metallica and Dr. Dre brought to the issue of copyright infringement.

Following Napster's lead, file sharing programs crawled out of the woodwork. After Napster flames out, plenty of newcomers will rush to take its place. It's not a question of the chicken or the egg anymore. No matter who's to blame - Napster, music enthusiasts, RIAA, or Metallica - the genie's outo