Is Napster dead or just napping?

Napster Inc. -- merely asleep, or dead?

For a week now, users visiting the currently defunct song-swapping site have seen a notice informing them that service is temporarily suspended while the company updates its databases to support a new tune trimming technology. While Napster struggles to keep on the right side of the law, blocking access to copyright music until it launches its subscription service, the site's prolonged slumber has left many wondering whether it will ever truly awake, and if so, to whom.

"Napster, as it was known, is dead, has been dead, and isn't going to be revived," said Michael O'Neil, country manager for technology research group International Data Corp. (IDC) Canada.

O'Neil looks at it this way: The Napster that rose to fame as the love child of free-for-all online music swapping will never return. In its place, users will receive a much more buttoned-up version. Now aligned with three of the Big Five record labels, Napster will become a pay-to-play entity whose content has been significantly reduced.

That means that diehard free-music swappers, or "bootleggers" as Forrester Research Inc. calls them, will move on to the next big thing, pillaging the Net for whatever they can get for free. According to Forrester retail music analyst Carrie Johnson, these bootleggers account for roughly 30 percent of users who download music online, meaning that the rebel audience Napster rode in on will most likely be moving on.

But there's still a majority of users -- 60 percent, according to Forrester -- who are casual music downloaders and still up for grabs.

These "freeloaders," as Forrester dubbed them, are usually looking for specific tracks and are slightly more inclined to pay. Because the freeloaders don't use the service as much, they might not even be aware that Napster is currently down.

"They are not so inconvenienced that they will leave in a huff," Johnson said.

O'Neil, however, figures that 45 percent of Napster's heyday users are moving on to greener pastures. According to February 2001 survey results from IDC Canada, 35 percent of surveyed users saw Napster as a public library of free music and 10 percent said that they used the service because it was cheaper, making them unlikely to pay-to-play.

However, according to the IDC Canada survey, 44 percent of users were potential subscription service clients. This group was comprised of users who were looking for hard-to-find tracks or who wanted specific music that they weren't willing to pay for.

But despite these user break-downs, Gartner Inc. analyst P.J. McNealy has another take on potential Napster users.

Napster's future, and the number of users it draws, will "completely depend on content and price," McNealy said.

And at this point, nobody knows for sure about either of those. While Napster naps, analysts and users alike don't know if the service will return temporarily free and heavily restrained, or in its subscription form, whatever that may be.

"Napster still has some equity," McNealy said, "but every day the service is down it will get smaller and smaller."

Forrester's Johnson noted that Napster still has a "fantastic" brand name in music, which will help them through the rough transition, but as far as user loyalty in the face of the service's seemingly interminable sleep, the online company has little time.

"They have a few days, certainly not weeks," Johnson said.

Meanwhile, Napster spokeswoman Karen DeMarco said Monday that she had no official word on when the service would be up and running again.

"I wish I knew," said DeMarco.

So do a lot of people.

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