Music sharing is alive and well on the Internet, no matter what happens in the courtrooms of San Francisco. The pioneering file-sharing software programs, Napster and Gnutella, have given birth to an impressive array of hybrids and clones. There's Napigator, with its headphone-wearing reptile logo; BearShare, featuring a teddy with headphones; Newtella, starring a newt with...you guessed it. The whole scene is starting to look like a Muppet Show special sponsored by Koss.
But if anything, there's too much of a menagerie out there: more than 50 cute 'n' friendly file-sharing services. And Napster's (original) headphone-clad cat looms so large that if you shut the service down, you are effectively sending users from a Virgin Megastore the size of Manhattan into dozens of poky vinyl-enthusiast stores that have no way of communicating with one another. Even though Gnutella clones (like Gnotella and Gnucleus) share the same networks, the technology still segregates users into temporary 10,000-person groups. And those users can forget about sharing with the geeks over on Freenet, which is highly specialized and built on a different technology altogether. Napster-ites need to shift en masse to a single alternative service if they want the same levels of choice. But which one: Splooge? Tripnosis? Filetopia? SongSpy? It's hard to make a decision when you are an anonymous, headless horde with as many different musical tastes as languages. Rather like trying to rebuild the Tower of Babel, only with more Britney Spears bootlegs.
The best alternatives could be the most legally vulnerable. Take Aimster, the Napster clone that relies on AOL's ever popular instant-messaging software. Download it (from Aimster.com) and you'll get an unseen extra layer to your buddy list, called a Buddyizer. This means that theoretically you can trade your MP3s with some 60 million "buddies." Hey, presto: an instant Napster-size network. As a bonus, Aimster currently searches Napster as well. "People already have thousands of MP3 files on AOL. All we did was add a search function," says Johnny Deep (his real name), 43, a software engineer who is Aimster's founder and CEO. "It's Napster squared." Since his software doesn't actually meddle with the proprietary code for AOL's Instant Messenger itself, Deep believes it is "litigation proof."
Not everyone agrees. "If I were setting up a file-sharing network, I'd avoid hijacking one of the world's most popular pieces of software," says Rick Joyce, a music analyst at Accenture, formerly Andersen Consulting. "You're just asking for a fight." AOL says it's monitoring the Aimster situation. Don't get your hopes up.
Ultimately, users will migrate to the services offering the most ease of use. So step forward, WinMX (at WinMX.com and FileShare (at MusicCity.com) the only sons of Napster who remembered to copy one of its essential components: the ability to write the name of the band and the name of the song you are looking for in separate search fields. When you're downloading tunes by the dozen, such things matter more than a cute logo. Then again, this is such an arbitrary decision that it could come down to which animal looks best in headphones.
--By Chris Taylor