Napster plug-in lets music play on

The add-on is called Napigator 2.0 and it's made by Thirty4 Interactive. Napigator 2.0 improves on its standalone predecessor Napigator 1.4 by integrating with the Napster client. And it's unaffiliated with Napster.

Once installed, Napigator 2.0 appears as a tab in one corner of the Napster client. You can click on it to link to a growing list of so-called OpenNap servers. This global network of servers works just like Napster servers, but is maintained by a group of open-source programmers who reverse-engineered the Napster protocol. Using Napigator 2.0 with a Napster client lets you bypass Napster's network and link to an independent one.

Napigator 2.0 is among a growing number of alternatives to Napster, as the music-sharing site's future remains uncertain. After a federal appeals court ruled last week that Napster encourages violation of copyright laws, the site began reinventing itself as a subscription service.

Meanwhile, Internet music fans are checking out competing file-sharing programs, in case Napster is shut down or levies membership fees. The newest version of Napigator, the 2.0 plug-in, is downloadable in an alpha version.

OpenNap servers proliferate

Clearly, Napigator is finding a ready audience. As of Friday, it lists 287 OpenNap servers with files to share, compared with Napster's 56.

"Napigator offers a service that Napster isn't offering and apparently a lot of users want," says Chad Boyda, co-founder of Thirty4.com. Boyda says Napigator points about 180,000 users to OpenNap servers each day. The company clocked 1.6 million users of the software last month, and expects 1.8 million in February.

Servers play a vital role for Napster by acting as a huge card catalogue of digital music files. You can search this index for songs, and when you find what you want, Napster points you to PCs with that song on their hard drives.

Boyda says Napster is unaware of Napigator 2.0, which differs from the earlier edition by actually plugging into the Napster client. Napster concurs, and representatives decline to comment on the new rival.

The chief advantage of Napigator 2.0 is its ease of use, marrying the Napster client with OpenNap servers. This may draw the millions of people with only basic computer skills and little interest in fussing with other Napster competitors. Many of them are peer-to-peer clients that are more difficult to use, such as Gnutella and Freenet.

Napigator's challenges

Despite its audience, Napigator faces challenges as the next potential Napster. Its OpenNap servers outnumber those of Napster, but many are inferior to Napster's. They include everything from high-end PCs located in basements to big-iron servers operated by companies like MusicCity.com that are tepidly following Napster's lead.

OpenNap is also, predictably, raising hackles at the Recording Industry Association of America, which wants to shut down those servers. They view OpenNap as an extension of what they consider Napster's illegal service. RIAA brought the original copyright infringement suit against Napster.

"We are not interested in litigating our way though the Internet," says Matthew Oppenheim, RIAA senior vice president of business and legal affairs. "A lot of services out there should read the court decision closely."

Boyda isn't worried. "We are confident there is no legal argument to shut us down," he says. Boyda compares his software to a search engine pointing Netizens to OpenNap servers. He says the RIAA hasn't been in contact with his firm.

Grassroots allegiances grow

The largest provider of OpenNap servers, MusicCity.com, is participating with OpenNap but has no formal relationship. "We are taking things on a moment-by-moment basis," says Jeff Hardison, MusicCity.com spokesperson.

Operators of OpenNap servers submit the Internet location of servers to Napigator. Napigator then sends spiders to maintain a dynamic list servers accessible within the Napster plug-in. In fact, Napigator is only one of several software clients that offer access to the OpenNap network of servers. Others include MusicCity.com and MyNapster. These utilities let you share multiple file types, rather than just audio files.

However, the process also makes OpenNap servers easy to trace, which could make them easy to sue.

Meanwhile Thirty4.com is pushing ahead with its business plan. Currently, it makes money from banner ads served inside the Napigator client. The company is also testing a new Amazon.com service called Amazon Honor System, which lets satisfied Napigator users "tip" Thirty4.com as payment.

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