Our Post-Napster Future

Which music-sharing service is right for you?

Years from now, I hope to plop my grandchildren on my knee and tell them the story of Napster, the service that for one brief, shining moment allowed anyone to download any music they wanted, absolutely free. Napster’s gone for now, hobbled by a flurry of lawsuits, but many new services are racing to take its place. Which is the right one for you and which, if any, will succeed, to be used by my grandchildren and generations to come?

Napster’s direct heirs are the Peer-to-Peer services, designed specifically to get around the legal issues that sank Napster. Napster started the whole P2P revolution by allowing files to be transferred directly from one computer to another, with no middleman. But there was one problem: Napster ran a central database that detailed which computer had what music to share. Shut that computer down (as the courts did), and you’ve shut down the whole service. The new P2P generation has no such single point of vulnerability. Instead, the list of files to be shared is decentralized, passed from one computer to another. Any one computer can be shut down by lawyers, but the service stays up.

The other key difference is that P2P services allow any kind of file to be swapped, not just the music MP3s that were traded with Napster. Proponents of these “file-sharing” services disingenuously predict that this will enable a multimedia utopia of recipe swapping, but what it really means is that people are now stealing movies and games, too, to store alongside their pilfered tunes. Still, the World Wide Web is essentially just a file-sharing service. The Web is often used to illicitly transmit copyrighted works, but no one would think of shutting the entire thing down because of a few bad apples. The P2P stalwarts hope the same logic applies.

People who use different P2P programs can swap files with each other, but only if their programs access the same network of files that are available for sharing. For example, users of the KaZaA Media Desktopand Grokster, two different P2P programs, can share files because they both access the same proprietary network, called Fast Track. The competing Gnutella network uses “open-source” software, and so has attracted a wider variety of programs, including LimeWire, BearShare, and now Morpheus. Users of these programs can share files with each other but not with KaZaA or Grokster users. Madster (formerly Aimster) uses its own network, incompatible with every other P2P program. So Madster users can only share with other Madster users.

To understand the difference between programs and networks, consider Web browsers. Internet Explorer and Netscape are two different programs, but they are both able to display the same Web pages because they both understand HTTP, the underlying protocol of the World Wide Web. Similarly, LimeWire and BearShare are two different programs, but their users can access each other’s files because both programs understand Gnutella’s protocols.

Which file-sharing program is the right one for you? In large part your experience will depend more on the quality of the network than the features of the program. It doesn’t help to have the best dang MP3 player in the business if you can’t find the music you want to play or if the music takes forever to download. Technologically, the Fast Track network is slightly in front. For instance, its sophisticated software allows a song to be downloaded in parts from several computers at once, which is a great benefit if you have a broadband connection but the one on the other side is a 28.8k modem. (Several Gnutella clients offer the same feature.) The Gnutella network got a bad rap early on when it was inundated with Napsterites seeking an alternative. At the time it was ill-equipped to handle the sudden load, but open-source developers have continued to refine the service. It now performs reasonably well and promises to improve steadily. As for Madster, its decision to start charging a fee is probably its death knell so long as the competition is free.

Assuming that both Fast Track and Gnutella are “good enough,” your choice will probably come down to whichever one offers the largest selection of files. This depends on more than how many computers are connected to the network: A network of 10,000 computers sharing all their files is more useful than a network of a million “freeloaders,” users who download files without sharing their own.Users of both the Fast Track and Gnutella programs seem equally happy, but you should download several programs (they’re all currently free) and try them out for yourself.

Do P2P programs endanger your privacy? Because they expose files on your computer to the outside world, that’s certainly possible. The programs typically help you draw a line around which parts of your hard drive are meant to be shared and which aren’t, but if you make a mistake and publish your sexual memoirs it’s no one’s fault but your own. P2P programs could secretly publish data from your hard drive, but so could any program you trust enough to run on your computer. (There is a larger privacy concern: Both KaZaA and Grokster are free, so to make ends meet they are paid to include other manufacturers’ programs with theirs. You may trust your software provider with your PC, but can you trust their paying clients? To uninstall this so-called “spyware” read this for KaZaA, and this for Grokster.)

If legality is an important consideration for you when choosing a music-download service, you probably won’t like any of the P2P services. Perhaps some of their users respect intellectual property and do nothing more than swap blueberry cobbler recipes (their own—not copied from cookbooks!) but in general these networks are hotbeds of copyright violation.

There are, however, a few legitimate options provided by the many music labels, each of which has a slightly different idea of how to handle downloadable music. The major labels have chosen to back two subscription services, Pressplay and Musicnet, but they eschew the public-domain and freely copy-able MP3 format for Microsoft’s and Real’s proprietary copy-protecting technologies. Independent EMusic and Vivendi’s MP3.com both have services where you pay a monthly fee to download MP3s, albeit from somewhat smaller labels. A variety of file-sharing sites such as Audio Galaxy and Morpheus’ parent MusicCity also provide free or for-pay download services, again from small labels. Napster’s fate keeps changing, but it looks likely to end up in this camp, as does Scour and many others.

This is the topsy-turvy world we live in. If you want to legitimately pay for downloadable music you need to access dozens of Web sites using a variety of different programs that may or may not be compatible with your hardware. And there’s a good chance that what you want isn’t even available. On the other hand, if you pay nothing you can find whatever you want in a heartbeat in a single format that you can use anywhere. This isn’t the world I want to leave to my grandchildren, but if the many players of the recording industry don’t get their act together, it’s what they’ll get.