Morpheus: The Better Napster

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I have seen the future, and it is represented by a multicolored "M" logo. No, I'm not thinking of the red-and-yellow kind they stick on sixty-foot poles by the side of highways. The might of McDonalds is small fries compared to the potential of Morpheus.

Like its namesake (Lawrence Fishburne's character in The Matrix), Morpheus has appeared almost out of nowhere to lead true believers into a different (and to some, terrifying) world. Here in Morpheus' private matrix, music files are free, easy to find, superfast to download. And unlike its doomed predecessor Napster, Morpheus is likely to escape the long arm of the Agents (a.k.a. music industry lawyers). In other words, it is The One.

Former Napster devotees — 60 million of my closest filesharing friends — have been glumly awaiting The One from the moment Shawn Fanning's brainchild felt the back of the music label's legal hand. BearShare, LimeWire, Aimster, FreeNet — all of these alternative MP3 swapping services have had their moment in the media spotlight. Plenty of pundits, yours truly included, were eager to anoint at least one of them as Napster's successor . All had their own get-out-of-jail-free cards, in that they had no central server (unlike Napster) and therefore no way of knowing you were deliberately seeking out copyrighted material (unlike Napster).

Trouble is — let's be honest here — they all pretty much sucked (unlike Napster). Not one of them was likely to pick up 60 million users and the kind of dazzlingly diverse and comprehensive music choice you get on a network that size. BearShare was the best of a crop of programs that used Gnutella technology; but the way Gnutella works means you're largely limited to rifling through the collections of 25,000 virtual neighbors. Close but no cigar, as Thomas Dolby sang (and you'd have little chance of finding that track, for one). Aimster had the neat idea of piggybacking on AOL's instant messenger service, but it turned out to be plagued by bugs. And if anyone without a computer science degree has managed to master FreeNet's baffling interface, I'd like to hear from them.

Enter Morpheus (available at, developed by a Dutch company called FastTrack (yes, this is something else to thank Amsterdam for). The second you download it, you know it's different. There's no off-putting server sign-on sequence like in the Gnutella programs. No lengthy process of scanning for music on your machine like Aimster makes you go through. Just a search page that returns results at a speed not seen since Napster. This is partly the fact that FastTrack is so focused on the end user experience, and partly the fact that plenty of people are using it already. A million of us downloaded Morpheus last month, six million since April (when it was launched under the abortive nom de guerre KaZaa), and we've been pretty active. 370 million files were traded in June alone. Were they music files? There's no way to tell. All I know is I've never been able to cross songs off my must-have list this fast.

It's ironic that Morpheus should arrive on the scene as Napster takes a couple of sellout steps towards its long-sought legitimacy. Interim CEO Hank Barry was brushed aside for a Bertelsmann executive on Monday, moving the center of power a little further away from Fanning and closer to the music industry. Even though an appeals court overturned a lower court injunction and ruled that Napster can resume trading while it waits for a trial, this new-look Napster will not do so until a planned paid service is in place.

Napster has a shot at holding on to the hearts and minds of digital music lovers at this most critical time, and it's not taking it. Neither is the music industry as a whole, which still hasn't given us much indication of what the much-hyped MusicNet and Duet online services will look like (they're supposed to switch on this summer, but don't hold your breath). Is it any wonder that Morpheus has stepped in to fill the vacuum?

This is not to say that the genie is out of the bottle and online music services must forever be free or die. I'd say most of Morpheus' users are honest enough that they wouldn't mind if a dollar was deducted from their bank account every time they downloaded an MP3 (it would be worth it to guarantee a complete, error free download every time). But there's the rub: nobody appears to be even thinking of offering what we might call Morpheus Plus. The business models of Napster and MusicNet call for tunes to come in their own limited, secure format rather than what consumers want, which is play-anywhere MP3s. They're about subscriptions rather than micropayments. They give no indication that anyone in a position of power in these companies actually understands what it's like to download digital tunes on a regular basis.

So until they do — or rather, to make sure they're forced to get it eventually — long live Morpheus and its amazing, ever-expanding musical matrix of market forces.