Napster -- the infamous Internet music-sharing service that sparked an onslaught of illegal song trading -- is back, and this time it's legal. It's also no longer free.
But with music fans who are still sharing music illegally facing the possibility of court action -- and with campaigns by the music industry, tech companies and even some rock stars against the practice -- the reborn Napster that debuted last week is not looking so bad.
The price, $9.95 a month, gives the user access to about half a million songs that can be combined to build custom-made playlists. When done, it's like having a personal radio station inside your computer.
And your personal station doesn't have to be restricted to one genre. You can build a multitude of playlists, mixing and matching rock, pop, country, opera, hip-hop, salsa and even recorded comedy routines.
Finally, if you want to make some of your selections more permanent and portable, you can burn them onto a CD for less than a dollar a song. In this way the services are similar to iTunes and Buymusic.com, which offer songs for sale online. But these retail sites, which do not charge subscription fees, offer users only short previews of songs -- usually about 30 seconds.
The beauty of being a Napster subscriber is that you can listen to an unlimited number of entire songs in its database for no extra charge. You don't actually own those songs and can't put them on a CD without paying extra.
The new Napster is undoubtedly a cool service, but this time it's hardly revolutionary. Right out of the gate it has major competitors, including Rhapsody and Streamwaves, that operate similarly and offer many of the same music selections.
Each has its strengths and weaknesses, and it's far too early to tell which will survive an almost inevitable shakeout. But what's important to users willing to pay subscription fees is that they no longer need a huge CD library to listen to a wide variety of music. And they don't have to rely so much on narrowly programmed radio stations to hear music they might like.
Still, even at half a million selections, the subscription services don't have enough offerings to satisfy cravings for music lovers whose memories stretch back further than the Backstreet Boys. The services are especially deficient in classical offerings.
The number of songs in the databases is bound to increase, however, as the services make deals with more music recording and publishing companies, as well as artists powerful enough to hold the rights to their songs.
Just about the only Beatles tracks now available on the services, for example, are mostly dreadful knockoffs, including "The Beatles on Panpipes." But earlier this year the Rolling Stones, formerly holdouts, completed a deal to allow their songs to be offered on the services.
Another problem is that the services' search engines have plenty of room for improvement -- tracking down an individual song can sometimes be a frustrating experience.
But these services could eventually provide the kind of personal power over media that was a promise of the digital era.
TV-radio host Dick Clark has often said that "Music is the soundtrack of your life." If you are listening to a radio station, however, it's not the soundtrack of your life but that of a target listener most likely defined by research, focus groups and ratings.
As these services become better, you will be able to be your own DJ.
Rhapsody (www.listen.com): Not the prettiest site but currently the best all-around online music service. It's owned by RealNetworks, the company behind the widely used Real audio-video player.
The opening page is busy but shows the many available attributes of the service. Near the top is the search engine that allows the user to look for songs based on performer, song, album or composer (the other services don't offer a composer search).
Search on "Matchbox 20," for example, and the site shows you a sampler of their most popular songs and gives access to the group's full-length albums. The songs can be added to a personal playlist, and those with a little flame icon attached can be burned to a CD for 79 cents.
Rhapsody also offers a variety of pre-programmed, so-called radio channels of music. When I searched on Matchbox 20, it suggested I tune into its channel that features the group's music plus that of similar rock artists.
Rhapsody was able to get many releases up and running before other services (it offered Fountains of Wayne's popular "Welcome Interstate Managers" online, while Napster still only had the group's earlier albums), and it offered a well-organized help screen.
Rhapsody's monthly fee is $9.95, and the service is offering a seven-day free trial. It's available only to Windows users.
Napster (www.napster.com): Having a famous name was a two-edged sword for this service. It received a lot of attention upon its debut but didn't have time to iron out its initial kinks in relative obscurity.
And the bugs are there. Like many who have subscribed, I suffered several irritating problems with service freezes and other breakdowns. Otherwise, Napster is quite similar in operation to Rhapsody, but nicer-looking. It has well-done and often witty animations on its opening page.
And Napster subscribers can message one another with their playlists, sharing the music they're listening to. (Rhapsody users can share playlists too, but the process is not as easy.)
When it gets rid of the bugs, Napster will be a true contender.
Monthly fee is $9.95, and individual downloads, when allowed, are 99 cents. Windows users only.
Mac users included
Streamwaves (www.streamwaves.com): The major way in which it differs from the others is that Streamwaves is also available to Macintosh users.
Otherwise, Streamwaves' interface is not as sophisticated or easy to use. But it does offer some selections the others don't have, including Sam Cooke's wonderful rendition of his song "Wonderful World."
The service has fewer songs available for burning to CD than Rhapsody or Napster.
A monthly subscription to Streamwaves is $14.99 but can be as low as $7.95 in a package that includes several months.