• Definition of Napster To Go: Bait & Switch!

    March 12th, 2005

    In theory, the concept of Napster To Go sounds neat. You pay just $14.95 a month and get access to a huge music library. Download all you want, and even transfer to a supported music player. What a lovely way to get a big music library, if you can get past the concept of renting rather than owning, of course.

    However, when you check things out a little more carefully, you’ll find that the reality is something else again, and it’s not just the fact that there is no Mac version, and the service doesn’t support the iPod. That probably won’t change anytime in our lifetimes, at least so long as Apple remains the dominant player in the industry.

    You see , as my guests revealed in this week’s episode of The Tech Night Owl LIVE, not everything is quite as it seems. For one thing, not all of the songs in Napster’s library are available for download through the subscription program. Many tracks are only available for purchase at the standard rate of 99 cents per track and so on and so forth. That’s something not made clear to you when you check out the company’s poorly organized Web site.

    And even if you do have a Windows box, a supported PC, and you decide you can live with the limitations, better read the fine print, such as these sentences: “Napster automatically renews your rights to all of your Downloads at the beginning of each Subscription Month (as defined below) so long as your subscription remains current. This means that in order to play any Download after the end of a Subscription Month, you must log on to the Service so that Napster can renew your rights for those Tracks. The Client will count the number of times that you play a Download, including while you are offline, for royalty accounting and analysis purposes.”

    All right, it makes sense that if you are buying a subscription on a monthly basis, it’ll have to be renewed to continue using the music. What’s not made clear is whether Napster will tolerate a situation where your credit card cannot be charged for some reason. Perhaps the account number was changed because you lost the card, or perhaps you ran over your credit limit. What happens then? Well, nothing is said about a grace period, so I suppose the music just stops. That could, conceivably, mean you’ll have to download all your tracks again even after you renew your membership. Or maybe not. It just isn’t explained.

    I am also troubled by the fact that Napster is tracking your use of that music. While I understand the legal issues involved with rights and all that, what about your privacy? Why should you surrender that information to a third party? What right do they have to know which songs you play and how often you play them?

    There’s also this troubling sentence: “Napster reserves the right at any time and from time to time to modify or discontinue, temporarily or permanently, the Service (or any part thereof) with or without notice to you, without any liability to you or to any third party.” So consider that you’ve spent hours downloading songs, and Napster suddenly changes the rules. Do you have to download all of them again? Will some songs remain available, while others are removed from the subscription program? And, of course, they can change the price at any time too.

    All right, I suppose with a subscription music service, these rules probably make a lot of sense from a legal standpoint. But even if you want to power up that Windows box to give it a try, don’t go into it wearing blindfolds. There are downsides to all this cheap music, aside from the fact that not all the tunes are available as part of that subscription.

    Despite these issues, some folks on Wall Street have the impression that Apple is in trouble, that its overwhelming market share is bound to dip big time at any moment. This is one of the reasons why the stock price has dipped in recent days. I suppose the fact that Napster To Go lets you download your songs to a handful of music players must make the difference over all the other subscription plans, but they forget that none of those players bear the iPod label. How soon they forget.

    Sony’s new Flash-based music players have also garnered more attention than they deserve. There have been alleged iPod killers from day one, and they all eventually self destructed. Remember, they are merely digital music players. The iPod is a cultural phenomenon, a way of life. And that won’t change overnight.

    But what about the subscription model? Does it make sense? Actually, I agree with the guests on the radio show that Apple might consider it as an alternative, perhaps as an expanded way to sample tunes before you buy them. Right now, you get 30 seconds at the iTunes Music Store, and that’s it. Of course, that’s the way their contracts with the music companies work.

    But here’s another idea: What if you could, say, download all the tunes you want and use them on your computer or iPod for a limited trial period, say 30 days, so you can then decide whether or not you want to buy them? There are no renewals, and no ripping to CDs. The clock stops at 30 days, and that’s it, and you cannot download the same song a second time. Would you be willing to pay, say, $10 a month for this added capability, and maybe a few extra special offers, such as discounts on the iPod and selected accessories? Maybe Apple could call it The iPod Club.

    Sounds like a plan. What do you think?

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