Rival services prepare for Napster onslaught

Napster clones are bracing for their biggest test in anticipation of a court hearing Friday that could see their role model shut down.

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Digital music post-Napster
John Borland, senior reporter, News.com
Napster clones are bracing for their biggest test yet in anticipation of a court hearing Friday that could see their role model shut down and its members heading to alternative services.

Alternative file-swapping networks were overwhelmed last July when a federal judge ordered Napster to block trades of copyrighted files. Since then, rivals have worked to shore up their systems, which could face a migration of some 64 million file-swappers in the event Napster is closed.

Gnutella, the open-source, peer-to-peer system viewed by many as Napster's heir apparent, has seen some big improvements in the past seven months, according to developers, although some admit the service couldn't take over for Napster on Friday.

"It's important to note that Gnutella doesn't scale like Napster," said Kelly Truelove, chief executive of Clip2, which conducts research and consulting on peer-to-peer technologies. "Even if Gnutella remains usable under increased load, it's not clear whether it will be usable enough."

The network on average has hosted about 10,000 people simultaneously, Truelove said, accounting for just 1 percent of Napster's current load. The Gnutella network averages around 150,000 unique users per day.

Despite the risk of outages, some companies see the looming shutdown order as a marketing opportunity. LimeWire, a N.Y.-based software developer company, said Thursday it is installing new servers to help handle an expected boost in downloads of its file-swapping client, which is compatible with Gnutella.

"File-sharing is just the tip of the iceberg--the Gnutella network has the potential to become an alternative not just to Napster, but to the World Wide Web itself," LimeWire CEO Mark Gorton said in a statement.

Gnutella is considered a viable Napster replacement, since many believe that it is bulletproof from copyright lawsuits. The software relies on a peer-to-peer network that links PCs without a central computer--or a corporate backer that can be shut down.

That said, it has had its share of technical problems.

Slow downloads and complicated sign-up procedures have crippled enthusiasm for the service, leaving it with a core audience of Net gurus rather than mainstream computer users. In addition, this week Gnutella has been plagued with a so-called proof-of-concept worm, which was likely created to prove that viruses can spread among computers connected to peer-to-peer networks.

"The real killer thing about Napster is that it's so easy to use," said IDC analyst Malcolm Maclachlan. "And that's how it ramped up its user base and got the critical mass of content."

Analysts said that although Gnutella is more complex, it offers more file-sharing possibilities, such as movies and Photoshop programs.

"As you see Internet users get more and more experienced, they move to more complicated stuff," Maclachlan said. "With so many people having used Napster for a while, I think a lot of them are ready to move up to more complicated things because there's all this stuff available there that they can't get from the labels."

The recently unveiled Gnotella 0.93 adds graphics to illustrate the progress of file transfers, a temporary download directory, and bandwidth throttling to help ease network jams. Bearshare, a Windows Gnutella client released in January, also reduces, but does not solve, traffic jams on the network.

"Peer-to-peer networks will always have a future and will always be one step ahead of the industry associations," said Jarvis Mak, an analyst at Nielsen/NetRatings. "The music industry was slow to catch up. They should embrace this technology."

Others that may see a big upswing in traffic include Israeli-based iMesh, which offers a service almost identical to Napster. Members search through a central database of available files but connect to each other directly when downloading selected songs. The company has seen a surge in downloads for its client software in recent weeks.