In the footnote of a court filing made earlier this week, Napster said it had struck an agreement by which it may buy the assets of Gigabeat, a music-recommendation service struggling to stay afloat.
The deal follows other hints about similar new technologies that could be added as a result of the company's relationship with entertainment giant Bertelsmann.
On the other side of the Atlantic, Napster partner Bertelsmann continues to maintain a subsidiary dubbed "Snoopstar," which at one time had released its own peer-to-peer file-sharing search engine. That program has since disappeared, but several of the key personnel at the subsidiary have a background in developing software that can "learn" from its users' behavior.
It's not yet clear that any of these pieces will ultimately find their way into the Napster-Bertelsmann subscription music service slated to replace today's file-swapping free-for-all, or even whether this subscription service will see the light of day. But the recommendation technology now circling around its fringes could prove a critical way for the record companies to make a paid Napster more useful, and more attractive to listeners than free underground services, analysts say.
"I think this is an essential component of any subscription service," said Jupiter Research analyst Aram Sinnreich. "Part of the value of any paid service is that it will help consumers negotiate the vast library of music they would suddenly have access to."
The music-recommendation business has launched a handful of music sites over the past few years. The most mature--and low-tech--of these is probably Listen.com, which uses a staff of actual musicians and music writers to listen to online music to develop categories and recommendations.
Most of the rest, including Gigabeat, MuBu.com, and others, use technology and feedback from users to determine what new music listeners might like. Many of the big commerce sites have been interested in this type of technology for years. Amazon.com has long had several different versions of this type of service to recommend books to buyers based on past purchases. Last year, Microsoft bought Mongo Music, one of Gigabeat's competitors.
Napster wasn't immediately available to comment on the timing or scale of its relationship with Gigabeat. But in a court document filed Wednesday, the company said it had made a deal that would let it buy some of the company's assets.
"Napster has separately entered into an agreement whereby it may in the future acquire certain assets of Gigabeat," the document read.
Gigabeat has been rumored to be on the block for some time. The company has declined to say anything specific about buyers, other than to promise "something interesting to say in the near future."
The Snoopstar link is more tenuous. The company, which Bertelsmann has said is simply an independent information-technology division of its conglomerate, was beta testing a peer-to-peer search engine early this year.
One of the developers of that software, a Mark Essien, also has worked on software that is designed to learn from the experience of its user, and from its own actions in a peer-to-peer network. Many of these links were originally pointed out by several German language publications.
Bertelsmann says Snoopstar now has "absolutely no relationship" with Napster and that the peer-to-peer project has been fully shut down.
"There is nothing going on along those lines at this moment," said Bertelsmann E-Commerce Group spokeswoman Melinda Meals.
Working any of these technologies into Napster is contingent on the service actually staying alive long enough to evolve, of course.
Bertelsmann and Napster executives have said they plan to launch their subscription service in July, with all-you-can-eat fees ranging between $5.95 and $9.95 a month. But the files swapped through the service would likely be in a new, secure format based on technology created by Bertelsmann subsidiary Digital World Services, the companies have said.
The success of this subscription model is reliant on other record labels joining, however. To date, none of the majors outside of Bertelsmann has taken this step.