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Switched On: Musician, Heal Thyself

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Every Wednesday Ross Rubin contributes Switched On, an opinion column about consumer technology, multimedia, and digital entertainment:

Six months ago, Napster launched Napster To Go, the first service based on the music renting technology from Microsoft previously known as Janus (which at least defined it better than PlaysForSure). Early looks at the service saw promise in the all-you-can-hear model of subscription music, but also much immaturity in the form of wobbly software and firmware glitches. Now, however, a rapidly growing number of new and updated devices are supporting Napster To Go. With upgraded software and a legacy-free Gateway 6 GB Jukebox Photo in tow, I took a fresh look at the service.

In general, the idea of Napster To Go still outshines its reality. When the service is working well, it's an exciting and unique proposition, dramatically more fun than surfing samples at the iTunes Music Store or being spoon-fed genres over satellite radio (although the latter has its place). Napster and XM have announced an alliance that will combine access to their services in forthcoming MP3 players, which may provide the best of both worlds when it comes to discovering music.

Napster to Go

Indeed, the music explorer using Napster To Go almost feels like Augustus Gloop let loose in Willy Wonka�s factory. I say �almost� because it�s important to remember that a significant number of Napster tunes cannot be transferred to a player under Napster To Go. That number is significant enough that such �Buy Only� tunes cropped up in many of the albums I sought to transfer. Furthermore, such tracks can�t be listened to in Napster, only sampled. This presumably has to do with various licensing rights issues. As future music contracts are written in an age that recognizes these businesses, a greater percentage of music should be compatible with the service.

Every online music store has huge gaps in its catalog, but one of Napster�s more amusing ones was made evident when a recommendation led me to nearly one-hit-wonders Quiet Riot�s greatest hits album. The Napster review specifically noted that the album contained �all of Quiet Riot�s biggest hits� (uh huh) including their biggest, the �80s anthem �Cum on Feel the Noize.� However, that track is not available through Napster, either to purchase or as part of a subscription. To be fair, though, the same disparity exists in the iTunes Music Store.

Napster To Go is not a service for the impatient. Worse (or perhaps better for those using a free trial), most hiccups revealed themselves during the first session. One series of glitches seems to stem from the Napster application being dependent on Windows Media Player (WMP) 10 to synchronize licenses with the device. After a smooth first transfer, the next transfer resulted in a message on the MP3 player saying I had to �sync� the music (licenses, really) even though I had just transferred it. Given the dependency, you�d think Napster and the WMP would operate in tandem, but the opposite is true. If WMP is open, not only can�t you open Napster, but you must wait a few seconds after WMP exits to launch it. Does Windows need to cleanse its palate?

Napster�s default user interface is cramped on a typical laptop screen resolution of 1024 X 768. There are other areas that need polish. When you search for music or look at the contents of specific albums, it momentarily shows the results for a previous search. A search for �Stevie Ray Vaughn� revealed only one album in Napster�s Artists/Albums and �artist feature� pane, but the song list displayed tracks from three of his albums. The search feature won�t find the names of misspelled artists and there�s no way to do a global search that spans artists, tracks and albums as there is with the iTunes Music Store. That said, Napster�s recommendations are better than those in the iTunes Music Store

When Napster crashes, which it does with the frequency of a drunk cousin stumbling down your block at 2 AM, it cancels all downloads you have in progress. You have to manually restart the transfer when you reconnect the player after you launch it again. This is a multi-step process. In addition, several tracks inexplicably refused to play within Napster and one stubbornly refused to transfer even when I cleared it from the queue and tried again. To Gateway�s and Microsoft�s credit, songs that made it through to the device played without a hitch so no firmware issues surfaced other than the initial license sync problem.

The first song that I ever heard on a portable MP3 player was �Video Killed the Radio Star,� a tune known to trivia buffs as being the first video played on MTV. That song, performed by the Buggles, has become identified with technological transition. Unfortunately, the most radical technology-driven idea in digital music as practiced by its leading advocate still has too many buggles of its own to resolve.



Ross Rubin is director of industry analysis at NPD Techworld, a division of market research and analysis provider The NPD Group. Views expressed in Switched On, however, are his own. Feedback is welcome at fliptheswitch@gmail.com.

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