CeePrompt! Computer Connection

Originally published Monday May 29, 2000

Napster catches me napping

In the technology world today, it's always a challenge to stay one step ahead. I read voraciously and test-drive new products, but invariably things do slip by me until they've caught fire elsewhere in the industry. The MP3 phenomena found me behind the learning curve until the recent legal wrangling involving Napster attracted my attention. In all fairness, I specialize in business software training and don't have many corporate clients with staff development needs in the area of heavy metal downloads.

But I've always upheld the concept of intellectual property rights in software development, so I was intrigued when the Recording Industry Association of America won a key victory against MP3.com for copyright infringement. In a related case, the rock group Metallica was the unlikely victor in their case against the online music community Napster, eventually shutting down more than 300,000 members who illegally exchanged music files.

At the heart of the issue is the relatively new MP3 file format. It is a technology that compresses music files down to a manageable size that can be exchanged across the Internet. As you can imagine, the music industry greeted this new format with skepticism and was even less thrilled when 19-year old Shawn Fanning pioneered a way for users to easily exchange their music throughout the Internet. His company, Napster, allows members to freely exchange and share MP3 files among thousands of users.

To better understand the issues I downloaded Napster to assess the hoopla for myself. When I logged onto Napster it felt strange from the start, probably because I'm years beyond the target market age group. The logo, the color scheme and the interface felt otherworldly to me, but I could immediately see how ingenious and simple the Napster scheme was. Napster is not the repository of any music files, but rather a vehicle whereby members can open folders on their individual hard disks to others for the purpose of sharing MP3 music files.

Now it seemed even stranger. After all my preaching about firewalls and admonitions about file sharing, I'm going to willingly open my hard disk to fellow Dead Heads? I don't think so, but this was the obvious workaround copyright infringement. It did work well, however, and every song title I searched for was found on some member's hard disk. There's even a chat utility if you care to talk tunes on Napster.

Not all MP3 sites rely on file sharing like Napster. There's everything ranging from sites offering a download forum for original, unpublished music to renegade sites hawking pirated music files.

To start listening to MP3 files you need a Pentium system, sound card and speakers and MP3 player software. You can download this software from the Internet or use the Windows Media player. Regardless of compression, however, MP3 files are by no means petite, therefore a high speed Internet connection is highly recommended for the fastest downloads.

The best part of my MP3 journey was the upgrade of my Windows Media Player. I downloaded version 7.0 from the Microsoft website and it's a remarkable improvement over the "go with" product that accompanies the operating system. The high-tech interface is impressive as is the intuitive modules that play music, search for videos or locate radio broadcasts all over the world. Additionally, you can create customized play lists and copy your CDs.

It will be interesting to see if Napster and the MP3 folk will be ultimately hailed as pioneers or pirates. For the time and effort involved, Tower Records makes more sense for me.

Cathi Schuler owns a computer literacy training/consulting company, Cee Prompt! She is a co-author of computer textbooks and can be reached by e-mail at cschuler@uop.edu or cschuler@ceeprompt.com or by mail c/o The Record, P.O. Box 900, Stockton, CA 95201. She is on the Internet at: http://www.ceeprompt.com. Click here for past archived columns.

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