Napster is back, with an inescapable marketing campaign that's put the familiar kitty-with-earphones logo everywhere, from Yahoo Mail boxes to stickers seen on the streets of San Francisco.
Its features having been unveiled early this month, Napster's introduction to the masses Wednesday contains little in the way of surprises. As announced earlier, the free software provides access to a huge library of songs that nonsubscribers can download for 99 cents apiece, as well as to a $9.99-a-month service that allows subscribers unlimited listening.
Coming on the heels of strong growth figures from Apple Computer's iTunes music store and RealNetworks' Rhapsody subscription service, Napster's release sets the stage for a long, hard fight for online listeners' ears and minds. The buzz around all of these services will ultimately have to face the consistent, long-term scrutiny of fickle computer users, who are already doing hard comparisons between the companies' products.
"We're still very much in the early days of online music distribution, whether we're talking about a la carte downloads or subscriptions," said GartnerG2 analyst Michael McGuire. "It's a battle now."
The fact that paid music services are even on the battlefield is a radical change from a year ago, when they ran a very distant second to file-swapping networks like Kazaa, Morpheus or the defunct original Napster. But after years of false starts, the services' rush to market this fall and winter does appear to be opening up a new--and potentially profitable--chapter in online music history.
The reception given the new Napster--developed and marketed to the tune of tens of millions of dollars by parent company Roxio--may be one of the best indicators of the paid market's attractiveness to a generation of computer users raised on free file-swapping services.
While the new service keeps some vestiges of the old Napster's look and feel, it is a decidedly new beast. It's the first service on the market to offer both subscriptions and single downloads, but there's a price tag associated with both models.
Initial posters to the company's message boards don't seem bothered by that fact, however. Most were complimentary toward the new service, asking only for a few new features, such as live chat and CD-quality streaming music.
A few echoes of the old anarchic Napster reverberated here and there. One poster explained how to record streams from the service and save them as MP3s without any copy protection. Downloads through the service are wrapped in Microsoft's digital rights management software, which limits how many times they can be copied to other computers and what kinds of mobile music players can read them.
But other listeners immediately criticized the free-music lover, asking why anyone would pay to pirate.
A few stories of potentially dangerous bugs did emerge online. One CNET News.com reader told of installing the software on a PC running Windows 2000 and subsequently seeing his computer freeze up. After receiving little help from customer support, he ultimately had to reformat his hard drive, losing considerable data in the process, he wrote.
"Thanks to Napster, I got to spend the remainder of the day reformatting my hard disk, reinstalling software and reconfiguring my system," wrote North Carolina computer user Paul Jones in a post on his Web site detailing his experience. "I lost hours of time I could have (and should have) been doing better things (with) and lost countless files that were, unfortunately, not backed up anywhere."
Other newly launched services have prompted similar stories, along with considerable praise. Apple's iTunes for Windows brought about its own reports of serious computer-freezing bugs when used with Windows 2000, and Apple released an updated version aimed at fixing some of the issues several days later.