Meet the Napster

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DAN LOH--AP

The Napster Kid: Shawn Fanning terrorized an industry. Will he be able to go on?

At dawn, Shawn Fanning lay on the brown carpet in the shadow of a converted bar counter, consumed by the idea. He had been awake 60 straight hours writing code on his notebook computer. In his daze, the idea appeared to him as something tangible--a hard, shiny piece of black metal--that he had to forge and form so that it became usable, so that the hard black metal was transformed into a friendly tool, so that the 0s and 1s, the Windows API protocols and Unix server commands, were all somehow buffed and polished and worked to a fine, wonderful, simple application. That was his idea. And it was big and frightening and full of implications, and it filled him up, this 18-year-old college dropout sprawled on the floor in his uncle's office, in what used to be a restaurant, across the street from the breaking waves in Hull, Mass.

He didn't need friends, family, financing--he almost went without food. He was self-sufficient, gaining sustenance and strength from the work, as if by his hands he was creating his own manna. And if the idea could nourish him, he reasoned, then how many others could feed on it as well?

Fanning only dimly recalls that period in mid-1999, when he wrote the source code for the music file-sharing program called Napster. He can't remember specific months, weeks or days. He was just hunched over his Dell notebook, writing the software and crashing on his uncle's sofa or the floor. Then he'd shake off fatigue, scarf a bowl of cereal and sit back down. He worked feverishly because he was sure someone else had the same idea, that any day now some software company or media conglomerate would be unveiling a version of the same application, and then Fanning's big idea wouldn't be his anymore.

And he believed in it because his idea was so simple: a program that would allow computer users to swap music files with one another directly, without going through a centralized file server or middleman. He'd heard all the complaints about how frustrating it was to try to find good music on the Net, how so many of the pointers on websites offering current (which is to say copyrighted) music seem to lead only to dead ends. But Fanning figured out that if he combined a music-search function with a file-sharing system and, to facilitate communication, instant messaging, he could bypass the rats' nest of legal and technical problems that kept great music from busting out all over the World Wide Web.

All he had to do was combine the features of existing programs: the instant-messaging system of Internet Relay Chat, the file-sharing functions of Microsoft Windows and the advanced searching and filtering capabilities of various search engines. He reasoned that if he could write a program that included all those features, he'd have a pretty cool piece of software.

But there was a huge leap of faith involved. Nearly everyone he mentioned the idea to believed it wasn't workable. "It's a selfish world, and nobody wants to share," snorted his older, more experienced buddies from the IRC chat rooms. Fanning, an inarticulate teenager at the time, couldn't adequately explain himself. He insisted that people would do it, because, like... just because.

What he was thinking was that this is the application that finally unleashes the potential of the Web, the viral growth possibilities of the community, the transgressive power of the Internet to leap over barriers and transform our assumptions about business, content and culture. He just couldn't spit out the words to convince his fellow programmers that his idea could change the world.

Love it or hate it, that's what Napster has done: changed the world. It has forced record companies to rethink their business models and record-company lawyers and recording artists to defend their intellectual property. It has forced purveyors of "content," like Time Warner, parent company of TIME, to wonder what content will even be in the near future. Napster and Fanning have come to personify the bloody intersection where commerce, culture and the First Amendment are colliding. On behalf of five media companies, the Recording Industry Association of America (RIAA) has sued Napster, claiming the website and Fanning's program are facilitating the theft of intellectual property. Most likely the blueprint for the future of the entertainment industry will be drawn from this ruling.

Legal issues aside, Fanning's program already ranks among the greatest Internet applications ever, up there with e-mail and instant messaging. In terms of users, the Napster site is the fastest growing in history, recently passing the 25 million mark in less than a year of operation. And, as Fanning predicted, his program does everything a Web application is supposed to do: it builds community, it breaks down barriers, it is viral, it is scalable, it disintermediates--and, oh, yeah, it may be illegal.

For its users, Napster has become another appliance, like a toaster or washing machine. Call it the music appliance: log on, download, play songs. The simplicity of the program is part of its genius. Since he took only three months to write the source code, Fanning says he didn't have time to make it more complicated. He had to learn Windows programming in addition to Unix server code, which he had taught himself. It is exceedingly rare for one programmer to excel at client and server applications, but Fanning had no choice. "I had to focus on functionality, to keep it real simple," he says in his gravelly monotone. "With a few more months, I might have added a lot of stuff that would have screwed it up. But in the end, I just wanted to get the thing out."

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