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Napster Changed the World December 11, 2011

Posted by Peter Varhol in Technology and Culture.
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Today, we are used to buying digital music on iTunes or Amazon, and listening to it on Pandora.  But ten years ago, the music industry resisted the thought of making music available for download, and it showed in decreasing sales of CDs.  Still, the music industry fought what it had to know was the future.

But the beginning of the end wasn’t iTunes, but Napster, using an odd approach to music sharing over the Internet.  Napster was a peer-to-peer network that stored music downloads on all members’ computers, and enabled any member to search for songs across the network and download desired files from any member computer.

While it was an elegant and highly scalable computing architecture, in practice it simply didn’t work that well.  Few people had broadband connections at the time, and many downloads proceeded at modem speeds – 33 to 56 kbps.  Users often turned off their computer, or cut off downloaders in order to improve their own Internet performance.  Quality of shared songs was often poor.

I mention this because Napster is officially dead and buried.  In one sense, it was a victim of its own success.  Because millions of people around the world shared music, the music industry simply couldn’t ignore it.  But rather than copy it, or subvert it with its own solution, the music industry took a different approach.

Of course, the music industry protects its intellectual property, and has the money to do so.  It sued Napster, and also sued many of the more egregious individual downloaders.  Napster claimed in court that it merely provided the infrastructure; it had no central control over what users did with that infrastructure.

It was a disingenuous argument, but it still took several years for the case to wind through the court system.  Napster ceased providing the network, and was eventually acquired.  Now it is officially shut down.

But Napster demonstrated that there was a consumer interest digital music downloads; the question was whether people were willing to pay for them.  As iTunes proved, the answer was yes if the price was right.  Without Napster, the music industry may still not have figured it out.

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