Napster’s legally challenged song-swap service went dark last week and sentiment among many former users grew even darker.
Napster suspended file-sharing July 2 for a self-imposed shutdown as it battled technical glitches related to its latest upgrade, which is intended to help it comply with a court order barring it from offering copyrighted material on its service. No time for a resumption had yet been given as of Sunday.
Many habitual music downloaders seemed to agree that Napster’s latest technical woes were the nail in the coffin of the once phenomenally popular service.
“Napster was dead six months ago. They just remembered to chuck dirt in the grave this week,” said one Web surfer on the Internet Relay Chat (IRC), a network of 45 or more global chat networks that enable peer-to-peer file-sharing.
Another IRC user turned to verse: “Bye Bye Napster Pie, Used to get files in piles but now the fountain is dry.” Since Napster began complying with the March 5 court order, it has seen usage grind to a halt. Research firm Webnoize reported in late June that users shared an average of 1.5 songs each on Napster’s service, down from an average of 220 songs shared per user in February. Since the self-imposed shut-down July 2, they have been not traded at all.
JUST A SHELL OF THE FORMER NAPSTER
“Napster’s just a shell of what it used to be,” said Cary Miller, a Los Angeles media executive and former Napster enthusiast.
On June 29, Redwood City, California-based Napster disabled old versions of its software and blocked users from accessing the network unless they upgraded to its latest version.
But about two days later, the technical problems related to the new version, dubbed 10.3, caused the company to shut down the free song-swapping service altogether.
“They forced you to download a new software and as soon as you did, they shut down the service. Internet users are very fickle. Once you lose them, you lose them and I think Napster’s lost a lot,” Miller said.
Napster is apparently treading cautiously because it is trying to win over the major recording labels – its major legal foes – ahead of a planned launch of a paid subscription service this summer.
While the big labels have succeeded in derailing Napster with the injunction, they have been developing online services of their own.
Last October, Napster received a cash injection from Bertelsmann AG, one of its legal opponents, to help it develop a secure version of the service.
More recently, Napster clinched a licensing deal with EMI Group Plc, AOL Time Warner Inc. and Bertelsmann’s BMG, all of which are part of MusicNet, a subscription joint venture with RealNetworks Inc. (NasdaqNM:RNWK – news). Under the deal, Napster would get these labels’ content once it provides a legitimate service that pays royalties.
USERS FLEEING TO OTHER FREE SERVICES
With all this corporate deal-making, many Napster users have become disillusioned with the service, which was once seen as the champion of free sharing on the Internet. Former Napster users have moved on to Gnutella-type file-sharing services like WinMX, LimeWire, BearShare and other services like Audiogalaxy for free music.
“Shawn Fanning (Napster developer) sold out for a couple of bucks and now he’s gonna lose it all,” said one user from an IRC network.
Others blamed the record industry for Napster’s demise.
“They declare war on us, the music ‘fans’ and then they expect us to rush and buy their… ‘legitimate’ services”‘? said another IRC surfer.
Analysts say the Napster brand still has some value, although time is quickly running out.
“The Napster brand still has equity with consumers but each day that new service doesn’t go up, that equity will drop,” said P.J. McNealy, an analyst with research firm GartnerG2.
Indeed, Napster’s ever-dwindling user base puts the company in a very precarious position, some say.
“Will there be a lot of loyalty? I have the greatest respect in the world for Napster and what they’re doing but unfortunately they now have a user base of zero. It’s not a matter of loyalty. Their user base no longer exists and they have to start from scratch,” said Bruce Forest, an Internet consultant.