Sampling Music Download Services

Apple Computer logo, against backdrop of musical notes, for story about music download service
Sometimes the world seems like it's upside down. Napster — scorned and put out of business by the recording industry's legal actions — is now back with the full support of the major record labels. And Apple, the only viable alternative to Windows for most consumers and businesses, is now a leading supplier of music for Windows users.

The old Napster went into bankruptcy back in 2002, but its name and other assets were purchased by Roxio, a software company best known for software that lets PC users duplicate CDs.

Both iTunes and the new Napster are sanctioned by all five music labels, who hope to put a dent into the illegal file-sharing process, which, according to music industry spokespeople, has had a serious impact on CD sales. iTunes for Windows or Mac is available now. Napster (Windows only) launches Oct. 29. Apple claims to offer about 400,000 songs. Napster says it has 500,000 songs.

I've had a chance to try out Napster and iTunes and I like both services, but am still a bit frustrated by the fact that they both impose some restrictions on what you can do with the music you purchase.

Apple's iTunes is a music store, although the iTunes software can be used to play MP3 files and copy music files to CDs as well as music to your PC. Although you can listen to 30-second clips of any of the tunes, in order to hear the entire song you have to buy it. Each song costs 99 cents. Some full albums are available at prices typically starting at about $10. Unlike iTunes, Napster allows you to purchase songs for 99 cents or full albums for about $10, but the company also has a premium service for $9.95 a month, which allows you to download and listen to any of its songs on your PC as long as you maintain your paid membership. The songs are encoded with digital rights management software that prevents you from burning them onto CDs or playing them on MP3 players or other devices. If your subscription ends, the songs can no longer be played.

With or without the paid membership, you can pay 99 cents a song to unlock the code, which gives you the right to burn them onto CDs. You can also copy them to Windows Media Audio-compatible (or WMA-compatible) portable music players.

The Napster service also maintains some of the community features that were popular with the former Napster. Although the brand is no longer associated with the free-for-all days of getting music for nothing, it does allow Napster members to share files. In other words, if you and your buddy are both paying members, you can swap files or play lists and listen to the music as long as you maintain your membership. Again, for 99 cents a song you can "buy" the song and burn it to a CD or copy it to an approved MP3 player.

Apple has a different philosophy. Steve Jobs said that he doesn't like the idea of a membership service and simply wants to sell music that people can enjoy for life. To that end, once you pay for and download a song on iTunes you can burn it, play it on a PC or a Mac or copy it to Apple's popular iPod MP3 player. Trouble is, even iTunes music has digital rights management that places some limits on what you can do with it. You can't, for example, play an iTunes song using other computer media players, nor can you copy them to MP3 players other than the relatively expensive iPods from Apple.

These restrictions are less draconian than some other music downloading services, but they still limit what you can do with the music you buy. For example, my son and I really like Napster's "all you can listen to" service. Since we installed the preview edition of the software last week, we've downloaded hundreds of songs that we can listen to on our PCs.

My son, who loves to listen to jazz while he does his homework on the PC, feels that it's a great deal. I like it, too, but I also want to be able to take my songs with me. I happen to own an Apple iPod, which is incompatible with Napster, so, if I want to "buy" a song, I use iTunes. Since iTunes is free of monthly service charges, this doesn't present too much of a problem, but a lot of people own other types of MP3 players and they are out of luck.

My son might be out of luck next year if he winds up attending Berklee College of Music, where all students are required to use Macs. If so, he won't be able to listen to the music he downloaded from Napster. On the other hand, he and his fellow students can make their own music, which in the long run is a very good thing.

Napster works with any MP3 player that supports the Windows WMA format. That includes products from Rio, Creative Labs, Samsung and other companies, but those players don't work with iTunes. In other words, once again, we have incompatibility between Apple products and products sanctioned by Microsoft.

Of course, there are other options and, I might add, loopholes when it comes to thwarting the music industry-imposed copy-protection schemes. You can buy your tunes using either Napster or iTunes, burn them to a CD and then "rip" the songs back to unprotected MP3 files that you can copy to any device. Needless to say, people who want to buy, sell or trade music illegally are going to find ways to do that via the Internet, CDs or even old-fashioned audiotapes.

Music is supposed to be relaxing and the last things I want to worry about are digital formats, rights management and anti-piracy. I just want to listen to my music.

A syndicated technology columnist for nearly two decades, Larry Magid serves as on air Technology Analyst for CBS Radio News. His technology reports can be heard several times a week on the CBS Radio Network. Magid is the author of several books including "The Little PC Book."

By Larry Magid