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No Telling When Napster Will Be Working Again

Napster’s still down, and there’s no telling when it’ll be back up again.

As the file-sharing service headed for the fifth day of its longest service outage ever on Thursday (July 5), the company couldn’t say when users would be able to start swapping songs again.

Since early Monday morning, Napster has blocked all file transfers, blaming problems in assembling the database needed for its new filters, which use acoustic fingerprinting technology. The new filters should allow Napster to block files based on musical content instead of simply relying on user-provided filenames.

“Napster’s goal is to start file transfers again as soon as possible, but we can’t yet give a precise time,” the company said on its Web site. “This is a brand-new technology, and we’re still fine-tuning all the parts. Napster’s engineers have been hard at work on resolving the database problem. Once this problem is worked out, file transfers will start again.”

Napster, which is required by court order to screen out copyrighted music cited by rights-holders, is in the process of building a new version of its system that will charge users a subscription fee and will in turn pay artists, record companies and publishers for the use of their music.

But the longer Napster’s current system is down, the more the company puts its future at risk, according to one online-music analyst.

“Clearly the value of their brand is around their community,” said Bruce Kasrel, a senior media and entertainment analyst for Forrester Research. “The longer they wait to turn on their [service], the smaller the community will get.”

A Napster spokesperson declined to comment on such concerns.

A spokesperson for Limewire, one of the most popular of the Napster-like programs that use the Gnutella network, said the company had seen a small increase in downloads of its software on Monday.

But one plus for Napster is that many of its most avid users are college students, who aren’t in school during the summer, Kasrel pointed out. “If they’re [still] offline in September, they’re in very deep trouble.”

Napster’s shutdown followed the introduction of the latest version of its software, which all users are now required to use. In a statement on its Web site, Napster suggested that users could blame the timing of such changes on the judge in the recording industry’s lawsuit against the company.

“Napster has been developing and implementing our technology on a schedule overseen by the court and the court-appointed technical advisor,” the statement read.

Pat Breslin, CEO of Relatable, the company that licensed audio-fingerprinting technology to Napster, declined to comment on the specifics of Napster’s situation. But he did say the company was facing a formidable task.

“I just think it’s important to emphasize that this is an enormous technical challenge that’s being done on a scale that’s totally unprecedented with this technology,” he said.

On its own, Relatable’s technology functions just fine, Breslin emphasized. The fingerprinting system, which works by comparing “acoustic properties in the waveform” of a song, can identify a typical music file in under a second, he said.

Napster’s problem lies in the time-consuming process of assembling a master database of fingerprints for the more than 800,000 songs that the company must screen. “When you’re dealing with such large numbers, things are bound to be complicated,” the company said on its Web site.

But for some users, it already appears to be too late for Napster to return.

“I noticed a slowdown a few days before the shutdown and had stopped using Napster by then, so it really didn’t affect me,” John Swartz, a 42-year-old user from Ontario wrote in an e-mail. “I’m not in a hurry to go back.”

Tens of thousands of Napster users remained signed on to the service on Thursday, using only its chat function. Not surprisingly, chat rooms were filled with users’ suggestions of other places to find free music.

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