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Lost in Cyberspace

Napster, Part 1

© 2000 by H.B. Koplowitz


The music industry, as we know it, is dead. Records, tapes, CDs, the factories for making them, the stores for selling them and the appliances for playing them, all dead. Say bye bye also to the traditional boundaries between artists, producers, promoters, distributors and consumers. But say hello to a whole new dimension of cyberspace destined to become as popular as e-mail and the World Wide Web. And greet a new online community that could challenge the hegemony of America Online. For I have seen the future and it is Napster <www.napster.com>, the first killer computer application of the new millennium.

Quite simply, Napster lets Internet users download a certain kind of music file called MP3 from each other's personal computers. While this has caused consternation in the music industry -- Metallica <www.metallica.com>, Dr. Dre <www.dre2001.com> and the Recording Industry Association of America <www.riaa.com> have all sued Napster for copyright violations -- a lot of other industries should also be freaking. Network millions of personal computers and "aggregate" their contents, and you've created a whole new way of doing business over the Internet.

Napster was invented about a year ago by Shawn Fanning, at the time a 19-year-old freshman in computer science at Northeastern University in Boston, who just wanted to make it easier to trade MP3 music files over the Internet. MP3 is a technology that compresses sound files so they are small enough to be sent over the Internet without losing perceptible sound quality.

While a few bands and record companies have used MP3 to market their music directly to fans, it is also the format of choice for so-called rippers, people who "rip" songs off CDs and convert them into MP3 files that can be traded online for other bootleg recordings. Rippers also download MP3 files and burn them onto CDs for personal use and sometimes for sale.

The music industry calls that music piracy, but rippers say it's no different than borrowing a CD from a friend and taping a copy for yourself. MP3s can be downloaded from Web sites with large collections on big computers, although the recording industry has sued several of the biggest sites, like MP3.com, restricting what they have to offer. Collectors also meet online in chat rooms and trade MP3s via instant messages and e-mail. 

Frustrated with the inefficiencies of existing methods, Fanning devised the simple but elegant Napster, which bypasses e-mail and the World Wide Web to let people catalog and download MP3 files directly from each other's computers.

Say you want an MP3 of a Metallica song. You might be able to download it at Metallica's Web site or go into a heavy metal chat room and find someone to e-mail a bootleg copy to you. Or, you could sign on to Napster, type "Metallica," and in seconds get a list of screen names of 100 other people signed on to Napster at the same time who have a Metallica MP3 on their computer.

Click on a title and the MP3 downloads from that person's computer to yours. Meanwhile, someone else might be downloading an MP3 file from your computer to theirs. Napster also has instant messages and chat rooms, so music fans can communicate in real time, creating an online community that could rival America Online.

Sensing he might be onto something, last August Fanning dropped out of college and moved to Silicon Valley to found Napster.com, which is making his software available to the masses, especially masses of music consuming college students. Although Napster is still under development and hasn't been released commercially, exploding numbers of young people are using it to trade MP3s over college computer networks, gobbling up so much bandwidth that some campuses have had to ban it.

Napster epitomizes the Internet ethos of decentralization and free access. It's as if a bunch of people agreed to let each other into their homes to sort through their private music collections and copy whatever they want, for free. But do the math. Napster claims 500,000 people have already downloaded the software. If 10,000 are signed on at any given time and each has 100 MP3s, that's an inventory to rival a giant online retailer like Amazon.com, not to mention a mere brick and mortar store like Tower Records.

Yet the end of the music industry as we know it is merely one manifestation of Napster's power. Change the type of file and Napster wreaks similar havoc in film, publishing and other industries. For example, who needs eBay if Napster-like software allows people to know what each other has for sale, barter via instant messages and create impromptu chat rooms for live instant auctions? And what about cyberporn? Who's going to pay to view dirty pictures online when with "Pornster" software you could dip into everybody else's private stock and download what you like?

Of course, that sort of file sharing also makes it easier to snoop. If you let strangers into your home to poke through your music collection, what's to stop them from sneaking a peek into your underwear drawer? Change a few lines of computer code and Napster might just as easily catalog and copy every other file on your computer, whether it be a dirty picture, love letter, tax return or screenplay.

I don't pretend to know how all this will shake out, or whether Napster.com is the next Netscape or America Online. But whatever happens to the company, Napster has forever changed the very nature of cyberspace.

Copyright 2000 by H.B. Koplowitz, all rights reserved.



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