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A tardy Morpheus meets mixed reviews

Expected months ago, StreamCast Networks' Morpheus 2.0 file-swapping program finally hits the Net. Users say an old version was easier to use.

File-swapping company StreamCast Networks released a long-awaited new version of its Morpheus software Tuesday, in a bid to recapture its once-unrivaled online popularity.

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The Morpheus 2.0 software is StreamCast's first full release of new software since it was knocked unexpectedly offline in February. Since that time, the company has been distributing a hastily written replacement that has drawn criticism for being more difficult to use.

The new version, originally expected to be released months ago, adds back most of the easy-to-use features of the older version, although in a very different form.

"We'd set expectations at a very high level, and we didn't deliver," said StreamCast CEO Steve Griffin. "We're hoping (people online) will give us another chance over the next few weeks."

Even if the new software brings Morpheus back on a par with Kazaa, the Australia-based service that has far outstripped its file-swapping rivals since last spring, StreamCast's future is clouded at best.

The company is still being sued by the major record labels and movie studios, and the case has badly drained StreamCast's coffers even before going to court. The company already parted ways with one high-profile attorney after legal bills began climbing too high.

StreamCast also has been slowly shedding employees over the past few months, although the privately held company hasn't made any official layoff announcements. It has officially hired an outside public relations staff and Washington lobbyist, however. From a financial standpoint, the company "absolutely has the staying power to go for years," Griffin said.

The company, which continues to distribute the file-swapping software without charge, is hoping to begin drawing revenue through a shopping affiliate program. Working with a company called Wurld Media, StreamCast has set up a "Shop" area in its software that refers file-swappers to companies such as Travelocity.com and Tower Records.

The software itself has built back in most of the features expected from a modern file-swapping program. Like the version released quickly in February, it is based on open-source Gnutella file-swapping technology. The company originally used the FastTrack technology also found in the Kazaa technology, but switched after a billing dispute with the FastTrack creators.

The new Morpheus contains a new feature called "chaining," designed to lessen the load on the Gnutella network when many people are looking for the same file. Using this, a person can start downloading a given file from someone else who has just begun downloading the same item from another source, instead of everyone going to the same place at the same time and overloading a network link.

The software also includes the ability to download bits of the same file from several places at once, a now-common download speeding technique called "swarming." New search features are added that allow swappers to narrow their search beyond simple titles or artists? names, and a media player downloaded separately from the full program allows people to build playlists or manage media services inside Morpheus itself.

Consumer reviews on Download.com, a software aggregation site owned by CNET Networks, publisher of News.com, were initially mixed. A good number of people praised quick downloads with the new architecture. Many complained that it used too many computer resources and returned few search results, however.

"Needs to be updated, and fast, if it wants to stick around," wrote a Morpheus user going by the name "Bushpatrol." "I recommend waiting for the next update before you move up to 2.0."

The new software, which was quietly released last weekend, will be updated several times over the next few weeks as people make their concerns known, Griffin said.