Napster vs. iTunes: Let the contest begin

Napster's all-you-can-eat music subscription service now has three portable players to go with it. Can it challenge the Apple allure?

A Napster commercial on TV offers the following comparison.

On top, there is a single iPod. The cost to fill it, Napster says, is $10,000. Beneath it are three MP3 players: Dell's Pocket DJ, Creative's Zen Micro and iRiver's new H10. With Napster to Go, the commercial says, you can fill all three with almost any song you can think of and you're out only $15.


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Next to that, in tiny print, are the words "per month."

Ordinarily such a lopsided comparison would make me cringe and conclude that it was aimed at the gullible. But this one made me re-examine my life.

Napster to Go is the latest edition of Napster's legal download service. (Although it was previewed to the public last fall, the software allowing small portable music players to work with it has become available only in the last few weeks.) A vast majority of the available tracks--Napster says 1.3 million--can be downloaded by subscribers without paying additional fees.

What makes Napster to Go different from other subscription services, like Rhapsody ($10 a month) from RealNetworks, is that you can load these tracks onto a compatible player and hit the road. As long as the player reconnects to the PC every month to verify your subscription, it feels just like the more common alternative--Apple Computer's iTunes, with its one-time a la carte cost of $1 per track or $10 per album.

Of course, the commercial doesn't say you will lose access to music if you stop paying. And Napster's $10,000 reckoning also assumes that everything on an iPod is purchased at the iTunes Music Store. In reality, you could have plenty of MP3s already, from ripping CDs and dredging the Internet.

But the commercial raises a good question: Will you rent albums the way you rent TV programming? If it makes financial sense--and if, armed with that knowledge, you can avoid the competing allure of iPod style and the Apple brand--you just might.

Since Apple opened its iTunes store at the end of 2003, I've purchased 504 songs--that's 21 albums and 224 loose tracks. That means my music diet, excluding a dwindling number of old-timey CD purchases, comes to roughly $30 a month.


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Most of my spending has been satisfying: new releases from U2 and Jack Johnson are simply essential, and impulse buys like the Postal Service's "Give Up" and Better Than Ezra's "How Does Your Garden Grow?" have become staples of my week. But many hunches and recommendations got old fast.

More frustrating still, there are hundreds of tracks I've just been too cheap to check out. Even though I have a permanent collection of about 7,000 MP3s--compatible with any service and player--$15 a month is still less than what I spend discovering new music.

Parents with children ages 10 to 20 know how costly the digital music revolution can be. If you look the other way as they download music using...let's call them gray-market techniques, your PC becomes irreversibly crippled by spyware. But when you try to encourage them

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