Music on Hold

IEEE Spectrum Magazine, July 2000

Where do new applications for telecommunications come from, and how do they get started?  How do we alleviate the problem of server congestion in the Internet?  What happens when perfect digital copying raises the fears of holders of intellectual property?  Fascinating questions, and that’s why I want to talk about Napster.

Of course, talking about Napster is a risk.  Many readers will say, “Huh?”  Then again, by the time this is printed, Napster may have been vaporized by legal proceedings.  Even mentioning the name in print seems to raise the specter of a suit these days.  But make no mistake, Napster is an idea that brings together some of today’s most important technical, legal, and ethical questions.

For the uninitiated, Napster is a website that maintains a centralized database of all the MP3 song files on the hard drives of its current users.  Users can search this directory for a song that they want, see a listing of other users who have that song, and then be connected directly for a download of that song from that other user.  It works like magic, and is so addictive that Napster traffic has clogged the local area networks throughout the colleges and universities.

Before Napster came into existence late last year people acquired MP3 music files by going to search engines like Lycos, which returned links to servers with the desired files.  Unfortunately, those servers were invariably clogged, had different access rules, and were often unavailable.  Napster changed all that.  Early this year Napster’s aggregated listing would typically contain about one million song titles.  On any song that would be even faintly popular, a user might have a choice of a hundred other users from whom to obtain the download.  Speed and availability would be listed for every such user, and download would be easy and immediate.

From a technical architecture standpoint, Napster is elegant and innovative.  Its functionality spreads like a virus, making every infected user a server for every other user -- the more users, the more servers, the more songs, and the more power.  There are no bottlenecks, because there are no central servers for downloads.  Moreover, contrary to every planning assumption in the design of networks, the traffic in Napster is symmetric – upstream and downstream traffics are equal on average.

The rise of Napster seems to have defied Metcalfe’s Law, which says that the value of a network increases as the square of the number of users.  A networked service like Napster only has great value when there are there are many users.  If there are only a few users, it has little value.  So how does such a service ever acquire a lot of users in the first place?

Metcalfe’s Law stopped the early videophones in their tracks and slowed the spread of facsimile for more than a decade, but Napster burst through in about two months, achieving nearly spontaneous combustion.  It seems that Napster had such great value to its users that it could attract them even in its infancy when there were few songs and places to download them from.  Moreover, in both the videophone and facsimile, you had to have some pre-existing relationship with specific other users.  In Napster you don’t care who the other users are; you simply want their files, and the central directory tells you who has the files you want.

Where does such an ingenious idea come from?  Well, of course, not from the establishment.  In this case it’s a nineteen-year-old student.  Personally, I never cease to be amazed as I go around to telecom industry meetings to hear about the new platforms that will facilitate the creation of new value-added services.  What services, people ask?  Well, no one in the industry seems to have a clue.  In reality they seem to arise out of the woodwork from neophytes who have been empowered by the new technology.  For all I know, maybe it’s the aliens again, chuckling to themselves as they inject yet another unsuspected application into the earthling culture.

The question that I keep asking myself, however, is this: is it only the existence of copyrighted music files that makes Napster possible?  Could I conceive of such a model in the absence of this compelling content?  Except for movies, now requiring more bandwidth than is commonly available, I think not.  The question is relevant because, of course, the recording industry and several bands are suing to put Napster out of existence.  The problem for the music industry is that it is stuck in a business model of selling virtual content – bits – based on a physical package.  Yet clearly the day of “digital ubiquity” is near, when any music can be streamed to your player on demand.  Why, people ask, should anyone then collect the CD packages when the bits are always available at your fingertips?

Being neither a young person nor a member of the music industry, I can watch the battle from afar with fascination.  If and when Napster is put out of business by the courts, other ideas like in wait.  For example, there is a system called Gnutella that works like Napster without a central directory.  Instead, it uses the principle of the six degrees of separation between you and the song you want.  Your computer asks nearby computers for that song, who then ask their nearby computers, etc., until some computer is found with your song.  In Gnutella, there is no central entity to sue, only the legion of individual users.

The instinctive reaction of the incumbent intellectual property owners when confronted by a new technology that threatens their hegemony is to stop the technology.  The entertainment industry failed in their attempt to stop the VCR, and then subsequently made more money from the VCR than from movies in theaters.  On the other hand, the same industry was mostly successful in stopping the introduction of Digital Audio Tape into the United States.

The Napster battle will be fought in the courts on narrow legal grounds.  No one seems to be asking what model is best for the artists or for the consumers in this era of perfect digital copying and distribution.  It seems in this case that MP3 caught the music industry unprepared, but the ethical issues have caught us all unprepared.  Technology has once again roared ahead of the consideration of its social consequences.  While we sort this all out, I’m afraid that the music is on hold.


Robert W. Lucky