Napster Leads, but What Follows Works

Given all the high-profile changes to the Napster music-sharing service, many users are looking for replacements. And there are plenty of contenders.

Unfortunately, Napster is the only service out there that can support tens of millions of users with its powerful, easy-to-use technology. Napster essentially enables users to root around other people’s hard drives in search of files. But services such as Napigator, Hotline, Filetopia and Gnutella have their strengths.

Before using any of these sites, however, understand the rules and risks involved in swapping music or movies--or, really, anything that you did not yourself create--online. Many activities are perfectly legal. Some are not.


You can, for instance, copy a song you currently own, but only for personal use. But allowing the whole world to copy your files--the basis of most of these systems--is not clearly protected.

Although copyright issues get most of the ink on file-swapping services such as Napster, security risks also exist. Because they’re designed to open up your hard drive to outsiders, file-swapping programs can compromise your privacy.

In addition, downloading stuff from strangers is a lot like sleeping around: If you do it often enough, eventually you’ll pick up a nasty infection. Use protection, such as an updated antiviral scanner.


The Napster universe is made up of a number of specialized computers, called servers, that act as a kind of information directory service, helping people find one another in Napster space.

Napigator works in conjunction with Napster, but it lets you choose your own servers to poke around in, Napster or non-Napster. This has the advantage of letting you keep using Napster in precisely the same way you’ve been using it. The disadvantage is that non-Napster servers have comparatively few users, with commensurately fewer files available for download.

It’s possible that if somebody pulled the plug on Napster’s servers--as could eventually occur--the system just wouldn’t work anymore, Napigator or no Napigator.

The bottom line is Napigator is a kind of supercharger for Napster that requires just a little bit more heavy lifting on the part of users than Napster alone.


Hotline is one of the best-kept secrets on the Internet, and it predates Napster. Launched in 1997, Hotline is used by millions of people to do perfectly law-abiding things. It’s a great way to set up little communities, and, like Napster, it allows for quick and easy file exchanges. Downloading the client and connecting to the pre-loaded “tracker” gives you a list of interesting servers where groups are broken down by subject area--such as cartoons or journalism--and where you can gather with others who share your interests.

If you’re looking for something a bit more exotic, however, go to one of several tracker-tracker Web sites, such as Connect to one of the independent trackers and you can find stuff that’s not at all mainstream.

There’s no great way to search all of Hotline for a specific file, but if you’re willing to put in the time, chances are you can find pretty much anything. Music, movies, software and, of course, porn can be found all over the place.

This service is for people who have a lot of time. The lack of a reliable search function makes finding a specific file difficult. Napster remains the king.


Gnutella isn’t a program; it’s a technique, a protocol, a way of doing business. There are a bunch of different programs out there that work within the Gnutella universe. Favorites are BearShare and LimeWire. They’re easy to set up, have nice safety features--such as a filter for files ending in .vbs that can reduce your chances of downloading a worm--and are quite robust.

Hard-core techno-geeks say the Gnutella protocol is an inefficient design, which isn’t surprising since it was a work in progress that was interrupted shortly after the first beta was released into cyberspace less than a year ago.

There are two big differences between Gnutella and Napster.

Napster is a centralized service, meaning that law enforcement could pull the plug on the Napster servers. Gnutella, in contrast, is a decentralized system, which theoretically makes it less vulnerable to any sort of attack.

The other difference is that Napster can support millions of users. The Gnutella system can’t support nearly that many people simultaneously.

Theoretically, looking for a file you want with just 10,000 possible users--the Gnutella universe tends to break its users up into small sets of less than 10,000, which is all you can see at one time--means you should have more trouble finding a specific file than if you’re searching a universe with millions of users. But we didn’t have any problem finding files, and every file we grabbed was viable.

Bottom line: A reasonable substitute for Napster, but sometimes it’s hard to connect.


Filetopia uses a centralized server like Napster, but its headquarters are in Spain, which makes attempts by U.S. companies to attack it through the courts problematic.

One of the coolest things about Filetopia is the fact that it uses encryption to provide secure communication and file exchanges, along with a shot at anonymity. It also includes chat capabilities and an instant-message system.

At the moment, however, Napster still wins since Filetopia’s user community is still quite small, so it can be hard to find stuff. And if Filetopia catches on, there’s no telling how well it will perform under a heavy load.


Dave Wilson is The Times’ personal technology columnist.