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Napster and interface design

The latest version of Napster offers users the ability to stream music from any PC with an Internet connection, without downloading any software.

Three years ago, when Napster and Microsoft were close partners, Napster was one of several music stores whose interface was embedded in Windows Media Player 10. I tested it along with some other Windows Media-based stores, but I found the service hampered by a nearly unusable interface. The idea of embedding an HTML store in the Media Player was problematic from the start, but at least MSN Music and CinemaNow were usable. Napster wasn't. Then I bought an iPod, and I still haven't found the combination of software-store-device that works as smoothly as Apple's.

Today, Napster announced the latest version of its service, Napster 4.0. The highlight: subscribers can access the service from a Web browser (IE, or Firefox on Windows, Mac, or Linux) without downloading any software. This is helpful for listening in workplaces or public spaces where PCs are locked down and users can't install applications on them. There are some other new features as well, including a music-discovery tool called Automix that seems to resemble Pandora--it looks at what you're listening to and builds a playlist of similar songs. CNET's Crave blog has a series of pictures of the new service if you want to see more.

My first thought: hasn't RealNetworks been doing this with Rhapsody for several years now? Sure, but imitation is part of the game.

Then I went to www.napster.com to try and find out more information. Now, imagine you're completely unfamliar with Napster. You don't have an iPod yet, but you have a computer and you have some vague idea that online music stores represent the future. You're intrigued, so you visit the site to find out more. Does thisdraw you in? Does it make you want to explore? To me, it looks like the kind of site you stumble across when you mistype a URL--there's a billboard advertising the service, then a bunch of tiny unreadable text links. And a ton of white space.

Fine, I'm still curious--I'll click on the billboard to get more information. And what does Napster do? They put up a registration page, immediately asking me for my name and e-mail address, and warning me that this is part one of a three-step process. Game, set, match. I give up.

Compare this with the first-time visitor's experience when they type in www.rhapsody.com. Or www.amazonmp3.com. Or--heck, why not--www.ipod.com.

There's plenty of bad design and usability problems with digital music sites and software--heck, Microsoft still hasn't bought the Zune.com domain (you have to type in www.zune.net). But for a company that's coming from behind and hoping to carve out a name for itself against immense odds, I expect more. This doesn't even look like they're trying.

(In case this wasn't clear, I'm talking about the Napster that launched in 2003, not the original service that brought music file-trading to the masses.)