Just when you thought Napster was bad

Well, it finally happened – Napster Inc. has been shut down. Or at least Napster has been told to shut down.

What this will mean long-term for the company is uncertain. Will the deal with BMG AG materialize? Time will tell (although I can’t figure out why BMG hasn’t yet realized they’ve backed a lame horse in the file-sharing race).

But what I can’t fathom is what Napster’s executives were thinking. They had months to change the game to avoid such a decision. For a start, generalizing the Napster software to handle a wider range of file types than just MP3 files would have changed things considerably.

And while they were at it, couldn’t they have improved the Napster interface? Or how about features such as the ability to resume downloads, find near matches, sort on any columns, or, perhaps – and here’s a biggie – make it so that entering multiple quotes in the search field doesn’t cause the Napster client to freeze? (Nah, why take a crummy piece of code and make it stable? Didn’t seem to be an issue for Microsoft Corp.)

Anyway, Napster now looks much like a dinosaur – the antecedent to a whole genera of systems that are much more developed and will be harder to shut down yet provide essentially the same service.

Consider Hotline (www.bigredh.com). Hotline is like Napster on steroids, and if I were a network exec interested in the health of my enterprise network, I’d be seriously considering banning Hotline – it is not only a source of huge amounts of extra traffic, it is also a source of potential legal problems.

Hotline, unlike Napster, is rampant with real digital pirates, and it’s fascinating that much of the existence of the pirated “warez” (as hackers call them) seems to be unknown or ignored by the copyright owners of the music, films and software. Perhaps that’s because Hotline servers are hard to shut down, but the scope and blatancy of the piracy is staggering.

For example, you can find every single product in the Microsoft and Adobe catalogues – even the very latest – along with passwords and unlock codes. You don’t even have to look very hard. Think of a current Hollywood movie – you can find it available for download on Hotline. Hell, you can even find titles that are just about to be released.

Many of the Hotline sites require you to log on with a name and password to be able to download content, and for that they usually give instructions to go to some Web server and click on a banner ad which brings up a page with your logon name and password.

The reason for this is the pirates get money for the ad clicks, which highlights one of the biggest and certainly most widespread frauds on the ‘net today: ad clicks that are generated solely in pursuit of illegal content.

I’m trying to determine the scale of bogus clicks but my guess is they represent something in the region of millions of dollars per month of revenue that supports and encourages pirates.

Anyway, Hotline is only one of the Napster alternatives available. There’s also Tripnosis, Gnutella, Newtella, Filetopia, Freebase, iBase, Servent, Toadnode, WinMX and probably a few others I haven’t yet heard of.

To say that the illegal file-sharing cat is out of the bag is an understatement. Napster may be crawling toward its grave but its descendants are alive and well and damn nearly unstoppable. Napster, R.I.P.

Gibbs is a contributing editor at Network World (US). He is at nwcolumn@gibbs.com.