It seems that Shawn Fanning was right afterall. This morning the folks at Napster threw in the towel and opened their online music store for free, ad-supported, listening. The service promises simple access to a huge music collection from anywhere (in the US) via a searchable database. Except for the annoying and intrusive web ads and the limited selection (only 2 million tracks), its almost as good as the original Napster.
Napster prexy, Chris Gorog, spins it this way "Napster was born of the idea of eliminating all barriers to discovering, enjoying and sharing music and of putting the power in the hands of fans."
Actually Chris, Napster was born of the idea that music is cool and sharing it with friends is better then buying in stores, but lets not quibble. The flash based player allows users to listen to individual tracks 5 times for free, then they can watch an ad directing them to subscribe to the full service while being taunted by a 30 second clip of their desired song. While not as open as Rhapsody's free service, its better then having to pay $10 -$15 month for the same stuff.
In addition to the limits on the number of times you can listen to individual tracks, ads are also inserted into the play-list at four song intervals. The ads, triggered by a flash event, bring hte player window to the fron and display a web based ad for 15 seconds. While there is no audio component to it now the 15 seconds of silence could easily be the audio counter-part to the displayed ad.
The free Napster also includes two additional "features" of the service; one called NapsterLinks and the other Narchive. NapsterLinks is basically a way to add links to tracks (like this Frou Frou) in emails, blogs or anywhere you can add a link. Narchive is Napsters take on NPR's Story Core idea for musicians, except the stories are told by everyone but the musician.
The original Napster was a great idea that hit at the right time and grew through its users. This series of business model gyrations by the "new Napster", driven by execs hoping to stumble upon a business model that will help it survive, seem tardy, futile andirrelevant . Pandora already offers better tools for discovery and last.fm has all the user generated goodness that one can hope for so besidescannibalizing its paid subscribers the utility of the free Napster seems limited.
On the plus side, the ability to listen to entire records ROCKS!