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Napster Returns -- Not Free but Legal

October 10, 2003|Jon Healey | Times Staff Writer

NEW YORK — Three years ago, it was ludicrous to think that Napster would win the backing of the record labels that were suing it for piracy.

So it seemed appropriate that when Roxio Corp. unveiled its new, label-authorized version of Napster here on Thursday, the industry's blessings would be delivered by rapper Ludacris.

"To see them come back and do it right, it means the world to the music business," said the rapper, whose latest CD is expected to top next week's sales charts. "It's a legitimate, cool, fair service that can and will bring artists and fans back together."

The artists may be there, but the big test for Napster 2.0 is whether it can attract fans too, after it is formally released Oct. 29. Roxio's strategy is to make it easy for people to find, download, share and take music wherever they go -- in other words, to mimic the features of the original Napster but with a price tag attached.

"A lot of people are going to check it out," said C. Eugene Munster, a senior research analyst at U.S. Bancorp Piper Jaffray. A favorable buzz from early users could make Napster the leading authorized online music service, Munster said, but a flop could fritter away the value of the widely recognized brand.

Roxio bought Napster's name and technology at a bankruptcy auction last year. Then the Santa Clara, Calif., company acquired the Pressplay online music service early this year from Vivendi Universal's Universal Music Group and Sony Corp.'s Sony Music Entertainment. The new Napster combines a few features from the original version with an online store selling songs for 99 cents each and an overhauled version of Pressplay's $10-a-month subscription service.

The combination sets Napster 2.0 and its 500,000-song catalog apart from Apple Computer Inc., which is expected to unveil a version of its popular iTunes Music Store for Windows users on Thursday. Roxio is trying to trump Apple's lauded iPod portable music player, teaming with Samsung Electronics Co. to offer a player that can beam songs wirelessly to car stereos, boomboxes and receivers.

"We have been deeply focused on the liberation of online music from the PC," Roxio Chief Executive Chris Gorog said. The company also is working with Microsoft and Poway, Calif.-based Gateway Inc. to put Napster 2.0 on DVD players and other devices around the home.

Borrowing a page from the file-sharing original version, Napster 2.0 enables subscribers to tune in to the songs that other users are listening to, look at what others have downloaded and send songs and playlists to other subscribers.

"Those are the kind of community things that are important" to the success of an online music service, said Michael McGuire, a technology analyst at GartnerG2.

Roxio shares slipped 71 cents to $10.27 in Nasdaq trading.

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