Last year, the only people who knew the name Shawn Fanning were his friends and college professors. This year, he's been written about in magazines, appeared on television, and even the people who still don't recognise his name, have heard his nickname -'Napster'. As the pin-up boy for one of this year's biggest trends - how peer-to-peer file-sharing over the internet is revolutionising copyright protection and changing old industry business models - he's PC Advisor's choice for IT personality of 2000.
Fanning's rise from obscurity began during his first and only year at university as a computer science student at Northeastern University in Boston, when he started working privately on a program allowing people to share MP3 music files. At that time, MP3 activity online consisted mainly of downloading the files from web search engines or FTP (file transfer protocol) sites, but Fanning wanted to combine this with the functions of an IRC (internet relay chat) program, so he could trade MP3 files with friends. Thus was born the program that became Napster.
The most powerful is the RIAA (Recording Industry Association of America), the industry group which is representing its family of record labels in an ongoing copyright infringement lawsuit against Napster.
Fanning's program probably could have escaped mainstream attention for years if it was written for the Linux operating system but, as a Windows program, it was extremely easy to install, easy to leave running in the background and easy to run on a college network. It brought simple,useable large-scale MP3 availability to the general public, making it an instant hit with music-hungry college students, and making immediate opponents out of record companies (and artists) who felt their bread and butter was threatened by the file-sharing service. As more people found out that there was a program with an easy-to-use interface that would allow them to search other people's servers and download popular songs for free, the Napster's appeal spread way beyond just college students.
The model that made Napster attractive was its simplicity. Instead of making fans hunt down the songs they wanted from websites or FTP sites, it let users share them one to one. Using central servers, Napster users could, in effect, share their entire music collections with each other straight off their hard drives. Suddenly, the MP3 audio format and the simplicity of obtaining illegal copies of commercial songs over the internet attracted the attention of both users and the media, and the resulting large-scale piracy of copyrighted works forced record companies to take notice.
They had barely paid attention to the net before, apart from a few small attempts at creating secure digital audio and making their artists available online. Now with their livelihoods and business models threatened, they had to take action - but it seemed to many a case of locking the barn door after the horse had bolted.
"Napster has been the catalyst for music labels' activity on the internet," said Robert Hertzberg, an analyst with market research firm Jupiter. "They were totally tinkering around before Napster, but Napster made it clear that, if they were going to do that, they would face a fundamental risk to their business, and the music labels need to find a way to harness that technology instead of getting hurt by it."
Napster's model also caused a huge surge of interest in peer-to-peer software, which allows users to share any files directly, one hard drive to another. The peer-to-peer model works by letting individual users connect to central servers, or hubs, where they can all, ideally, share the contents of each other's hard drives. The model can also be focused to sharing only from specified directories, or files with a specific suffix, such as .MP3. Napster caused a flood of similar peer-to-peer trading services to hit the market, including Gnutella, as well as others which extended their service to include offering short and feature-length movies.
"Peer-to-peer sharing is not a new idea, it's just that Napster has made it so simple and has made a valuable service available for free," Hertzberg said. "The real significant question is whether Napster is an ethical model," he added.
The peer-to-peer sharing market will most likely continue to grow as well, not only because of its ease of use, but because of the credibility involved. "Peer to peer has great advantages, even for companies that are in traditional content businesses," Jupiter's Hertzberg said. "Every consumer becomes a distributor, and consumers are a very credible source... there's less of an ulterior motive for a consumer to send me something than there is for a company to send me something, the consumer is less apt to do that if they don't believe it's the next best thing."
Fanning's sudden fame has drawn comparisons to another young icon of the internet, Netscape co-founder Marc Andreessen. "Andreessen was also on the cover of everything, he was a big-time rock star," Hertzberg said. But like a rock star's, Fanning's hard-core fans are demanding.
The Napster founder is already losing some of the credibility that gave him his status of youthful revolutionary. In late October, his company struck a deal with Bertelsmann AG BMG, under which the latter will fund Napster's development of a subscription-based download service. When the service is available Bertelsmann will pull out of the music-industry lawsuit against Napster.
The faithful on the barricades consider him a sell-out for uttering the very word 'subscription' - but then if rock stars are Fanning's example, selling out won't hurt his long-term prospects.