Lots of perfectly good trees have fallen to say perfectly dumb things about the Web-enabled, or Web-threatened, future of the music business. But most of them have been said by people who have used Napster.com very little--and probably never used Gnutella or Freenet, the best-known of the free song-swapping systems that threaten the music industry as we know it. When you do use them, you know the guy who has it right is Robert P. Merges, a law professor at the University of California at Berkeley: "Companies that sell content won't stand still. The advantage of the legitimate providers will always be standards, convenience, and quality," he says.
Test-driving Napster and trying to use Gnutella and Freenet show just how right Merges is. Napster is the only one remotely resembling an intuitive, dare I say fun, experience. Gnutella and Freenet betray their homemade roots in a mess of impossible software. With Napster, in five minutes you have tunes--albeit with glitches I'll cover soon. The others are No. 1 and No. 2 on my list of the most annoying, useless Web experiences I've ever had.
Gnutella is hard to use, lacks any reliable technical support, and is written by people who seem to think everyone is a software enthusiast. With Freenet, about the nicest thing you can say is that the software is like a school project--which may be because the program actually began as a graduate school project. With both of them, I gave up before I actually downloaded any music at all. Here's the bottom line: If it takes a customer hours to figure out software, it's the programmer's fault. Period. America Online Inc. gets that, and so does Napster.
Even Napster, the best of this bunch, rates no better than a B. Napster Inc. CEO Hank Barry had promised me I'd find absolutely anything on Napster, but it's reasonably easy to stump the system: I based my tests on asking Napster to match my own pretty modest CD collection, which I bought in mainstream record shops. The idea was to see how obscure I had to get before Napster cried uncle. The answer: pretty obscure, but it could be done.
Examples: In country and folk, I easily found the Austin Lounge Lizards' The Dogs, They Really Miss You (a song I chose partly because I was working at home, dog by my side, while my wife Kim was out to dinner), but nothing by the Hard Travelers. Jazz fans could scoop up any Charlie Parker song I have in my living room, but they would go waiting for a copy of anything in my collection of bawdy early-century riffs by Delta blues musicians. My favorite: Napster readily delivered three copies of Bach's Ode to Joy. Of course, this highlights the gleeful amateurishness that makes Napster Napster: the Ode to Joy was written by Beethoven.
The reason for the missing music: Napster only offers files shared by people logged onto Napster.com when you are. So put aside the 23 million Napster users you read about: The real number is the 6,167 user libraries open when I searched. That meant about 700,000 tunes were available at any given time--not chicken feed, but not quite what the hype promises, either.
Finding obscure records isn't the only thing about Napster that demands patience. Because many users who share songs by letting Napster upload files from their computers use slow modems, and because Napster has trouble coordinating more than one task at a time, some tunes took an hour to download, even though I used a cable modem. Many never made it. Trying to play one tune while searching for another, let alone while downloading a second tune, causes notable sound distortion. But compared to what I would find using the others, these problems are quibbles. Overall, the software is pretty simple, and the service is pretty good.
Competition? Nah. Certainly, I missed Napster's simplicity while struggling with Gnutella and Freenet. Instead of directing download traffic through a central server, as Napster does, each program theoretically lets people contact each other directly to share files. I spent several hours with Gnutella, downloading three different versions from different Web sites, and couldn't get any of them actually to deliver any songs. Here's how the Gnutella adventure begins: You go to a site such as gnutella.wego.com and choose from different versions of Gnutella posted by anonymous people. Gnutella is an "open-source" program, meaning different programmers work on it independently and build each others' best ideas into their versions. I ended up picking a version by someone whose nom de Web is "The Guy." Who? I don't know. I only put his handiwork on my home computer because it was work. With apologies to Ike and Tina, I still am workin' for The Man--if not The Guy--every night and day.
But I'll never lose a minute of sleep worrying about what I'm missing with Gnutella. Gnutella offers a limited number of other servers to connect to, identified only by numerical Web addresses. Would I rather connect to 22.214.171.124:8080 or 216.231. 59.237:8080? I'll pass on either until I know who they are. Reliability? I tried dozens of times to connect to Gnutella-recommended servers. It didn't work once.
Freenet is even worse. Its home Web site offers no technical support, simply a FAQ page. Among the questions not answered there: "How do I start Freenet?" and "How do I conduct a search using Freenet?" You can't easily search for songs by titles. Instead, Freenet says "information is currently retrieved by `keys,' which should be guessable or communicated by some other means." Huh? And to run Freenet, you have to install a Java Runtime Environment, get a WinZip utility to decompress Freenet's software, and so on. Oh, one rather big thing: Freenet's claim to fame has been that no one can stop its use (even if it's illegal) because it's impossible to trace who uses it. But that's not true.
All of which brings us back to Professor Merges' point: Online music will take hold when it's robust, reliable, and has someone standing behind it. That costs money. So give me Napster for $2 a CD or something, after a deal with the record companies. As for a revolution led by Gnutella or Freenet, the Beatles said it best in Revolution: "You say you've got a real solution, well, you know, we'd all love to see the plan."