Napster clones promise much but deliver far less

by Alan Zisman (c) 2002
First published in Business in Vancouver,  Issue #644 February 26-March 4, 2002, The High Tech Office column

"Peer-to-peer," which used to mean the low-end networking built into Windows and the Mac, has become a much-heard buzzword in a new context. This time, it refers to informal networks of computers, connecting across the Net to share files.

Peer-to-peer gained notoriety when Napster became every teenager's way to get music without having to go to the CD store, and without having to pay. The result, last year, was a counter-attack by the music industry, which used the courts to effectively castrate Napster.

But as Napster filtered out more of the songs users had been sharing, a new generation of peer-to-peer software appeared which, unlike Napster, had no easy-to-shut-down central database.

Software like Morpheus (No. 1 on the popular site), AudioGalaxy, Direct Connect, iMesh, KaZaa, and LimeWire (the only one with a Mac version) go Napster one better by searching for any kind of file: music, video or software.

The result? Users can stop saving their allowance to buy the latest computer games and even the latest office suite software. Not only can they avoid late charges at the video store, they can download movies to their computers that aren't even on video yet.

Don't believe it?

Ask any teenager. Strictly for research purposes (of course), I downloaded and installed a copy of Morpheus. Want to see Lord of the Rings on your laptop? Morpheus found me a copy, if I was prepared to download three hefty 250 MB files.A search for "XP" offered a choice of Microsoft's new Windows XP or Office XP, complete with serial number generators.

Copyright? Intellectual property rights? Again, ask any teenager, if only to see the blank stare that results. Ignoring copyright issues, all is not perfect, however, in this new reality where (as the cliché goes) information wants to be free. 

  • Most of the programs used to search and download are free, but many install "spyware" that collects information on your computer system and Internet activity and may modify your system without informing you. If you're not sure of an application, type in its name at to get a report. 
  • The recording industry's attack on Napster has had an effect. While there is still plenty of Britney Spears' music online, if your tastes are a little more obscure, there's far less available than there was a year ago at Napster's peak.
  • Many of the files downloaded aren't what they claim. Music files may cut off part way through, or may be a totally different song than the title. 
  • You're not going to want to download Lord of the Rings over a standard modem. Cable or DSL connection please. And even so, the movie you get will play, at best, in a medium-sized window on-screen.
  • Many times, those long downloads just don't work. Maybe the owner of the other computer had to reboot.

The computer press keeps promising that the new peer-to-peer will provide all sorts of wonderful legitimate business uses. So far, though, it seems to be mostly about getting music, movies, and software for free. 

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Alan Zisman is a Vancouver educator, writer, and computer specialist. He can be reached at E-mail Alan