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Napster's Heirs and the Continuing Thrill of the Free Ride

(Editor's Note: This marks the inaugural edition of Tech Support, TSC reporter Tish Williams' weekly consumer technology column. Every Thursday, Tech Support advises readers -- the non-gearheads among us -- on the easiest, quickest and least-expensive ways to tap into the newest and hottest trends in technology.)

The Internet is a vast continent of bargain content, software and relationships with grammatically challenged correspondents from cold climates. And you are no Ponce de Leon. You are not getting off the boat, even when scurvy becomes an issue.

Yet, you are tempted by the stories coming back from the shore about free music. What is this heathen service, this Napster? Do these savages know nothing of intellectual property rights and artists' need to make a decent living? And if they still don't, you'd love to get a copy of Mariah Carey's new album for the kiddies without paying retail.

Unfortunately, if you are just getting interested now, your timidity has outlasted the heyday of Napster, a service that allowed millions of youngsters to swap music files and royally peeve the Hollywood establishment. Napster's legal Achilles' heel was the fact that it collected files in a central location, which could be shut down. This weakness has been eliminated, however, in a bold new breed of Napster offshoots, which connect fast and slow computers around the world into a loosely connected federation of users willing to share the fruits of others' labors freely.

Let's look at the pros and cons of the new Napsters, in a world with cheapie used-CD bins, legitimate pay-and-play MP3s and free radio. The benefit is that by taking half an hour to install and conquer a relatively simple piece of software, you gain access to all the new music you want, free. Your discovery comes at a price, however.

Using these sharing programs can eat up precious bandwidth and the better part of a computer's storage. Not to mention the nagging feeling that you're exposing your fragile computer to the unknown. Music-sharing programs bring with them strange advertisements, neighbors who are getting files off your computer and the sneaking suspicion that someone is smart enough to get more than Ricky Martin from your shared files. Finally, there's the issue of copyright abuse -- whether you are on David Geffen's BBQ invite list or not -- and the potential to undermine a system that had attempted to protect individuals' and companies' creations for hundreds of years. We are not advocating the practice here, we just think the technology is too important to ignore. Brows furrowed, we proceed.

Picking a Program

First, we'll tackle the unknown technical terrain. You need a program of choice. We picked Morpheus and AudioGalaxy, the champion and runner-up this week on CNet's Download.com. Just under 2.5 million people this week grabbed these sharing programs from Download.com and, as we all know, the mob is levelheaded and has impeccable taste. We also threw in a version of Gnutella, because we read a few months ago that it was the direct heir to Napster. Gnutella is apparently a broad term encompassing many programs, including our guide, BearShare.

For starters, we downloaded. BearShare takes about 10 minutes. Morpheus and AudioGalaxy download in less than 30 seconds, which nicely satisfied our need for instant gratification. You'll need only one of these, of course. We tried several for kicks. When we double-clicked on our downloaded installation files, we became aware that this new world had pigeon-sized mosquitoes bearing horrible ailments. AudioGalaxy tried to get us to download two other programs aside from the music-sharing application. Both AudioGalaxy and BearShare installations gave us horrible cramps, a high fever and an unwanted application called BonziBuddy that volunteers to find sites on the Web that match your interests. We want free Metallica, not BonziBuddy.

Many programs are accompanied by small applications that serve up a constant stream of advertisements or help you optimize your bandwidth when swapping files. Being suspicious in nature, we became immediately paranoid and had to wash our hands frequently. This feeling was replaced by elation as soon as we discovered free music.

Morpheus, the clear winner in our minds, introduced us to the new world with a big, easy-to-use Web-page interface. We went right to the search page, and Morpheus gave us more choices than its rivals: We could look for music, video or pictures. We typed in "All Right Now" and were getting a copy from one of the locals in seconds.

Before you could say "influenza," we realized paradise had a price: our free time and the storage space on our computer. Music files are big, and your standard 2-megabyte song took 5 minutes or more to download on a basic office connection. A video clip took us 15 minutes, leading us to offer a prayer for the sanity of those on slower connections. Downloads don't always work, so you can spend several minutes getting a copy to start transferring. With just a few songs in our Morpheus folder, it swelled to 18 MB.

BearShare had an additional pitfall. The program provided a much simpler, basic Windows-looking gray box for our searching and sharing. But it was a major headache to get it started. Even when we inadvertently closed and reopened the program, it took several minutes to establish a communal link to the music underground before we could begin searching. You want convenience, go to Virgin Megastore. You want it free, be prepared to play a lot of solitaire, conquistador.

It took us five tries to even register for the AudioGalaxy service. AudioGalaxy wanted us to have a password, and each time we entered our false personal information (hey, I've always wanted to be a college guy in Florida) it would spend a minute failing to connect to a server and would tell us to try later. Each time, we had to re-enter our fake identities and hope for a connection. Once users make it beyond an initial foray, they judge services by download times, the ability of the network to connect you directly with machines enjoying ample bandwidth, the number of users and titles available for perusal, and straightforward sharing that doesn't leave you exposed when you aren't expecting to be.

Oops, P's and Q's

Which brings us to the topic of sharing etiquette. Users who take music from others but don't make their files open for sharing wear the scarlet "F" of the freeloader. You are encouraged to open a folder on your computer with your music files, which causes a paranoia relapse. If your new neighbors can get into your music folder, it seems logical that shifty, no-goodniks could access your personal files and send those bachelorette party pictures zinging across the vast prairie lands. We'd had our fun, and we uninstalled the programs without much ado with the handy-dandy Microsoft Add/Remove Programs function in our control panel.

Back on the boat, we were breathless and invigorated. What a strange, exhilarating world, full of uncharted singles and obscure items from long thrown-out albums of our childhoods. Not bad for a visit, but with all that time and anxiety, we wouldn't want to live there.

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