Meet the Napster

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

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The pressure he felt came from a pent-up demand for digital music in the late '90s that was going largely unfilled. Before Napster, downloading music was so cumbersome it was mostly relegated to college students with access to fast pipes and techno geeks sufficiently driven to search the Net for the latest Phish bootlegs. The digital-music standard MP3, short for ISO-MPEG Audio Layer-3, was developed by German engineering firm Fraunhofer IIS back in 1987 as a way of compressing CD-quality sound files. The technology made it possible to take songs from a CD and "rip," or convert them into MP3 files, usually in violation of copyright. But even in the mid-'90s, when faster computers and high-bandwidth connections to the Internet made it possible to seek and find MP3 files, ripping CDs was a tedious process.

Then, as if everyone had just been waiting for it, Napster--some kid's Big Idea--appeared. And suddenly all these pieces of the puzzle fit together. We could all become music pirates because it was just so damn easy to do--easier even than ordering a CD online. And once that happened, would we ever be able to go back to getting into our car, driving to the mall and buying a shrink-wrapped piece of plastic with a little silver disc inside? "I don't know how to stop it," says Atlantic Records Group co-chairman Val Azzoli, of the problems created by Napster. "It's not just music I'm worried about. It's all intellectual properties. If you can take music, you can take everything else too."

Fanning never intended to hijack the music industry. The idea for Napster just came to him as he was sitting in his dorm room at Northeastern University in Boston, hanging out with his bros, drinking a brew and listening to his roommate whine about dead MP3 links. Fanning, whose high school nickname was the Napster (a reference to his perpetually nappy hair), just shrugged. But he began thinking there might be a way to access files without going through a website. He had taught himself Unix programming between his junior and senior years at Harwich High in Cape Cod. And he knew enough to think such a program would have to be possible. "I had this idea that there was a lot of material out there sitting on people's hard drives," he says. "I mean, even if you were at [search-engine websites like] Lycos or Scour, you were still looking at people's hard drives. So that's the idea, that there's all this stuff sitting on people's PCs--and I had to figure out a way to go and get it."

The concept had lodged itself in his head, and he couldn't shake it. He began taking his notebook computer everywhere--to basketball games and the pizzeria--and tapping away on it, working out some basic programming kernels and wondering if this were even possible.

One January evening, as he rode back to campus with his cousin Brian Fanning, he was, as usual, totally absorbed with his idea. "I'm like that. Once I begin focusing on something, I'll just keep going until it's done. I cut off the outside world." When the BMW pulled up to his red-brick dorm, Fanning absentmindedly got out of the car and began walking up the path. After two steps, he stopped. Brian, who was about to pull away, waited as Fanning turned around, strolled back to the car, opened the door and climbed back in. "I'm not going back to school," he told his cousin. Brian shrugged and drove off. It was Shawn's problem.

His mom and stepdad, of course, gave him hell, delivering the usual platitudes about how he'd regret it and wouldn't amount to anything without a degree. "When he didn't go back to school, it crushed me," recalls Coleen Verrier, Fanning's mom. "But he explained he had these things he said were urgent." Fanning was unfazed. He felt he had no choice. The idea had become too big. It possessed him. He never went back to his dorm room, leaving behind his clothes, books and bedding. He took his computer with him, of course.

Fellow programmers marvel at what Fanning was able to accomplish when he moved into his uncle's office, a computer gaming company in seaside Hull, and set to work on Napster. It was the first major program Fanning had ever written. "One thing that sets Shawn or any really great programmer apart from mediocre ones is their focus," says Ali Aydar, a friend from Massachusetts who now works as a Unix programmer in Napster's Redwood City, Calif., offices. "Shawn is able to concentrate, and collaborate and appropriate if necessary. He's also able to handle criticism. Most alpha-geeks can't take criticism. They'll get into arguments. Shawn actually listens and takes the best part of what you say."

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