Meet the Napster

Shawn Fanning was 18 when he wrote the code that changed the world. His fate, and ours, is now in the court's hands

  • Share
  • Read Later

(6 of 7)

One of the great ironies of the Napster affair is that there really isn't a business, not yet. And if Fanning loses this case, there never will be a business, at least not for this P2P company. By the time the case reaches a final verdict, in six months or a year, some other hotshot P2P site--Gnutella, perhaps, or Freenet--might have become flavor of the month. Napster, for all the storm and fury it has engendered, could be remembered as a peculiar millennial trend--like those little chrome scooters--rather than an epochal event.

As the creator of Napster, Fanning has reached a level of fame unprecedented for a 19-year-old who is neither a sports hero nor a pop star. He's been on the cover of FORTUNE, BusinessWeek, Forbes and the Industry Standard and has been profiled just about everywhere else. His name and his face--those piercing blue eyes, wide cheeks and stolid expression under the ever present University of Michigan baseball cap--have become synonymous with the promise of the Internet to empower computer users and the possibility that some kiddie-punk programmer will destroy entire industries. Strangers pick him out at the mall buying a burrito or watching a San Francisco Giants game or just driving around in his newly customized Mazda RX-7. He introduced Britney Spears at the MTV Video Music Awards. Nike has offered him a shoe deal.

For all that, Fanning has been unable to capitalize fully on his fame and notoriety. While he is pulling down a high five-figure salary as lead programmer of client applications for Napster and owns 9% of the company, so far that 9% has proved essentially worthless, since the company is still privately held.

He lives frugally--as do more than a few billionaires in Silicon Valley--sharing a two-bedroom San Mateo apartment and a 6-ft.-wide-screen Mitsubishi television with co-Napsterite Sean Parker. The tables are strewn with old pizza boxes, empty Coke cans and, Napster notwithstanding, actual digital discs, both video and audio. The furniture is rented, the brown sofa often serving as a crash site for Fanning's 13-year-old brother Raymond, who is teaching himself to code while he stays with Fanning. They have never bothered to get a phone line installed; the cell phone works just fine.

There is still the air of the jock about Fanning, an easy-going, wide-stepping stride and upper-body muscularity that seem out of place on a programmer. He eschews carbohydrates and hits the gym most evenings, as if bulking up for his showdown with the record industry. And a few afternoons a week he plays basketball in the Oracle gymnasium up the road from Napster's Redwood City offices. He doesn't like to admit it, but at least one co-worker confirms that he is usually the best player on the court.

Shawn Fanning has become surprisingly thoughtful and well spoken--perhaps because, being at the center of an epochal lawsuit, he has had to. Although his guard is up these days, as you talk to him, plucking a Led Zeppelin song on his Les Paul guitar, his answers roll out in complete, concise sentences. He has a slightly raspy Californian accent--he has already lost Massachusetts' stretched a's and long r's--about what it's like to be at the center of everyone's attention, and not necessarily ever to have wanted to be there.

  1. 1
  2. 2
  3. 3
  4. 4
  5. 5
  6. 6
  7. 7