No more free lunch?

National | Napster usage drops, Internet appliances hit a snag, and new generation of cell phones rolls out

Issue: "Untouchable?," April 7, 2001

Napster's last stand
Has Napster's song played out? Ever since the online song-swapping service tried to play ball with record companies by blocking copyrighted songs, usage has declined. Napster reported in court documents that it has removed 228,500 files from the site's search index. Webnoize, a firm that tracks the service's usage, reported that usage fell in half once the company beefed up its screening technology. A federal judge had ordered Napster to yank unauthorized songs within three days of receiving notice by the record companies. So rightholders presented a long list of tunes they want zapped from the software's indexes. Napster since responded that it has received "hundreds of thousands of inaccurate file names that do not correlate to the artist and title," which makes compliance harder. Napster claims it has spent $150,000 and more than 2,700 employee hours to develop and implement a filtering mechanism to keep out violators. Napster has already fought off a program that uses Pig Latin to bypass the filter with slightly altered words. The service also made a deal with a company called Gracenote to access a database of more than 12 million musical works cataloged by artist and title. Meanwhile the main lawsuit between the recording industry and Napster remains unsettled. The industry alleges that Napster let millions of people violate copyright laws. Any result will be a monumental moment in Internet history, setting precedent for how people trade files. Users unfriendly
Whatever happened to digital convergence? 3Com is getting out of the Internet appliance business, which raises questions about the future of gadgetry. A whole slew of small products that go online for specific tasks have shown great promise but tepid consumer demand. 3Com's main product was the toaster-size Audrey, a $499 device that uses a touch screen and a knob instead of a traditional keyboard and mouse. Users could surf the Net through a normal ISP, but this was supposed to be an anti-computer, a user-friendly timesaver that let anyone surf the Web, read e-mail, and set up a calendar. Instead, users complained about limited functionality and clumsy buttons. "The Audrey tried to be everything," said Forrester analyst Bruce Kasrel. "It tried to be a Palm Pilot organizer and a Web surfing device. It was so overly featured, it ceased to be a one-purpose device." The other gizmo was potentially revolutionary: Kerbango the Internet radio. People could play music, programs, or other things off the Net without tying up a desktop machine. Hopes were high, but the product never shipped. But 3Com's failure won't necessarily stop others from trying to make Internet appliances work. Gateway and Compaq also sell Internet appliances-and Gateway plans to launch a wireless Web tablet later this year. Other companies are trying a variation on the strategy by putting similar technology in accepted products like cell phones, laptops, and handheld computers. What may inspire interest is broadband access, which pumps more power into little devices. Generation bridge
Your cell phone is yesterday's news. Nokia and Siemens are rolling out new phones with new features and faster access to the Internet. A new technology called General Packet Radio Service (GPRS) that transmits signals at two to four times the current speed is headed toward the mainstream. Motorola already has GPRS handsets on the market, and newer models will be out during the second half of this year. Whether good local service will be available isn't clear. Nokia claims the technology will grab 40 percent of the mobile phone market share. Ericsson has a new snap-on digital camera for its cell phones that can transmit photos using GPRS. GPRS is a "2.5-generation" service, something in-between current technology and third-generation phones that will have even better Internet access. Since third-generation service is expensive for phone companies to build, GPRS is considered a good mediate solution. GPRS will make wireless Internet service more useful and less of a novelty. Users will be able to access their e-mail, the Web, or their corporate Intranet more easily. In time, more and more Internet connections will be wireless, with more people hooking laptops up to phones to hit the Net. Right now, cell phones are like PCs. Most people have something they like and don't intend to replace immediately. Updating equipment is unnecessary if the jump is incremental, so the improvements must be great.

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