By Rebecca Viksnins
(October 9, 2003)

You heard it right: Napster is back--and it's gone legit. After closing its doors in 2001 following an expensive bout with the RIAA, Napster (acquired by software company Roxio in 2002) heralded its second coming today at a press conference in New York City. In beta until October 29, the new incarnation of Napster--running in part on technology leveraged from Roxio's other recently acquired veteran music-subscription service Pressplay--looks promising. Although it no longer uses P2P technology for file distribution, the beta showcases "community" features, such as the ability to share playlists and browse other users' libraries.

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The Napster interface is streamlined, easy to use, and chock-full of artists promoting their work. By the way, the surprise guest at the launch party in New York was Ludacris, who urged us all "to go to the store and pick up his new album, Chicken and Beer." Oops. After that speech, Roxio CEO Chris Gorog reminded us that we could download it in a few clicks via Napster 2.0.

Upside: Like competitors Musicmatch and BuyMusic, Napster lets you purchase individual tracks for 99 cents a pop, and as with Apple's iTunes Music Store, you can pull down full albums for $9.95. A premium subscription of $9.95 per month buys unlimited downloads, access to 40 commercial-free music streams, a subscription to an online music mag called Fuzz, and "community" features. With 500,000 tracks already in its library, Napster is hitting the ground running; in contrast, Musicmatch and BuyMusic debuted with about half that. And while we haven't yet tested its burning capabilities, the process--which amounts to a quick drag and drop--looks to be simple and speedy. Then again, CD- and DVD-burning software has long been Roxio's bread and butter.

Downside: Fans brought up on the freewheeling Napster of old will no doubt be disappointed by 2.0's limitations--at least initially. Just like industry leader Apple, Napster restricts the ways you can use tunes acquired through the service, though its rules apply to the whole library, and the company tried to make them as unobtrusive as possible.

Outlook: While we don't know at this stage whether resurrecting the Napster name will help or hurt Roxio in the long term, the company isn't banking on buzz alone. For starters, it has launched a cobranded MP3 player with Samsung. Roxio has also secured a deal with Microsoft to link Napster from Windows Media Player 9.0 and to preload the software on all Windows XP Media Center Edition 2004 PCs. In addition, Roxio has forged a relationship with Gateway--Napster 2.0 will come preloaded on all Gateway Media Center PCs, such as the 610, shipping this fall. But the true test of Napster 2.0's mettle won't come until Apple debuts the Windows version of iTunes later this year. Stay tuned.