Despite Napster's legal troubles, others are developing new music file-sharing technology that may or may not run afoul of copyright law
Niklas Zennstrom is keeping a low profile. Based in Amsterdam, the 35-year-old Swedish engineer is the creator of KaZaA, a new peer-to-peer (P2P) file-sharing program that is already being hailed as the "next Napster." That would make Zennstrom a veritable heir to Shawn Fanning, the bad-boy teen who launched the P2P music craze two years ago.
Unlike Fanning in his heyday, however, Zennstrom is lying low -- even referring media calls to an outside technology consultant, Mike McGinley. "These guys are engineers," says McGinley. "The last thing they need is to challenge the entertainment business. That gets you nowhere."
Zennstrom's actions speak louder than words, however. On the one hand, the music establishment's neutering of Napster has left P2P innovators exceedingly gun-shy. "Anything anointed 'the next Napster' automatically becomes the most popular service because everyone rushes to download it," says Clay Shirky, an independent consultant who is an expert on P2P systems. "Then it gets hit with all the lawsuits."
SLICKER INTERFACES. At the same time, though, P2P marches on. In fact, technology that makes it possible to share music, as well as video, images, and documents, is evolving faster than ever. The Recording Industry of America's (RIAA) aggressive legal tactics may ensure that P2P music trading may never be as widespread as it was with Napster. Still, two new platforms have emerged -- KaZaA, and Austin (Tex.)-based Audiogalaxy.com.
Both are developing slick interfaces and savvy technology that make file-swapping easier -- and technically harder for opponents to shut down. Predicting how P2P music networks will develop is always tricky, of course, because the recording industry's legal tactics seem to change nearly as quickly as the technology does.
The RIAA convinced the courts that Napster was responsible for illegal file sharing on its networks, and its neutering cleared the way for the launch of two competing music-subscription services, MusicNet and PressPlay. To fight the sons of Napster, Hollywood studios and record labels increasingly are demanding that Internet service providers (ISPs) step in to prevent file sharing of copyrighted material, by cutting the perpetrators' connections to the Net, if necessary.
Some ISPs -- such as Adelphia and Excite@Home -- are complying. But several of the largest, including Verizon Communications, are turning down these requests. It's no wonder. ISPs have usually taken the position that they aren't in the business of monitoring what passes over their networks. Still, a court could require them to install filtering technology that would block the transfer of copyrighted files -- just as U.S. District Court Judge Marilyn Hall Patel did for music files in the case of Napster.
BREATHING ROOM. Whatever the recording industry and the courts do, however, the newest technologies may ensure that music will continue to flow over P2P networks. For one thing, you don't need to be a rocket scientist to write fancy file-sharing programs. Fanning was just 17 when he wrote the Napster software. FastTrack's Zennstrom is basically a telecommunications engineer with an innovative bent. "Destroying Napster bought the labels breathing room, that's it," says consultant Shirky. "If [the industry's new Web] subscription services don't give users what they want, another better, decentralized solution will come along."
Of the newest P2P technologies, Zennstrom's KaZaA is one of the cleverest, blending the best features of Napster and rival file-sharing service Gnutella. With Napster, a central server matches visitors who are seeking a tune with someone who has that song stored on his PC. Sharing of music can't happen without that central server.
Gnutella, by contrast, is a pure peer-to-peer service, which means that music swappers connect directly to one another once they've downloaded the Gnutella software. That means there's no central server for the RIAA to take aim at, as in the case of Napster. But the disadvantage is that Gnutella's decentralized architecture can be easily overwhelmed if too many people try to download files at the same time, because everyone on the network receives the request until a match is found.
NIFTY FEATURE. To solve this problem, KaZaA designates "supernodes" on the network -- powerful PCs that have fast connections to the Net that are identified by the system to devote a small percentage of their resources to help run the network. The supernodes also route and distribute download requests more efficiently than Gnutella. To prevent each request from going to every participant, the superpeer holds an index of who has what song and directs requests accordingly. If one member's PC shuts down, others continue to route requests.
KaZaA also has a nifty feature that addresses one of the most common complaints about Napster and Gnutella: Incomplete file transfers. In such instances, KaZaA invokes a fail-over feature that locates another peer with the same file and automatically resumes the download.
Since its launch last summer, KaZaA and its first licensee, file-sharing service MusicCity, have attracted more than 1 million visitors. During June, an average of 225,000 simultaneous users were using the system at any given moment to download a total of 370 million files, according to industry research firm WebNoize.
That's about the same activity Napster recorded in April, 2000, when it first burst onto the national scene. And it's more than twice the activity on the much diminished, and rapidly fading, Napster. KaZaA also dwarfs Gnutella, which averages about 40,000 concurrent users on various Gnutella clients, including BearShare and LimeWire. WebNoize expects the number of simultaneous users to reach nearly a half-million by the end of July.
USER-FRIENDLY. If KaZaA is technically superior, though, Audiogalaxy is one of the most user-friendly P2P systems. The browser-based program hooks users into a central server a la Napster. The key is that visitors search for files in the same way they would use a Web search engine -- by merely typing in a request. Audiogalaxy swears that it blocks all copyrighted material.
After all, the Napster case demonstrated the courts will shut down services that abet illegal activity, even if the primary use of such systems is legal file sharing. Even so, it's easy to find dozens of copyrighted songs on Audiogalaxy, by everyone from Louis Armstrong to the Velvet Underground.
Just as with Napster, music swapsters can join Audiogalaxy groups that let them find others with similar tastes in music. Anyone can set up a group. To join, others need simply to apply for permission from the group owner. Audiogalaxy won't confirm the number of groups that currently exist, but there appears to be something for everyone.
UNDER THE RADAR. Members can post to online message boards and upload songs for the other members to hear. If any member of the group is offline, the song is simply added to his queue and automatically downloaded when the user next logs on. "Our goal is to give people the opportunity to see the vast amount of music out there," says Audiogalaxy President Michael Merhej. "It lets them meet
people who can teach them what they might like."
The popularity of such groups could be the harbinger of truly unstoppable P2P service. Instead of one Napster, imagine a world with hundreds of niche file-sharing services for small but passionate groups of jazz or hip-hop lovers. The secret subnetworks wouldn't have enough users to attract the attention of the RIAA. (The networks would be the equivalent of today's cable and satellite pirates. The companies know they're out there, but it's not economically viable to try catching them.)
And since the groups' members are aficionados, the small number of users wouldn't prevent people from finding the files they want. Bottom line: If past is prologue, Napster may be dying, but its vision may live on. By Jane Black in New York