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Welcome to the world of legal online music ambiguity. Say hello to Grouper.

Grouper - a temporarily stealth software project - has gone up for download and instantly created a confusing divide between the old world and the new. Unlike most P2P software that shares music and other files with world+dog, Grouper focuses on sharing files between friends. Users can set up mini-P2P networks and open up their photos, music, movies and documents. This approach seems much more similar to old-style content swapping where friends handed each other a mixed CD or recording of the UT versus Texas A&M football game, just with a techie twist.

In addition, the Grouper software does not let users download each others' music. Instead, it only permits streams of music files, while permitting downloads of other content. This creates a nice response to subscription services from the likes of Real and Napster that allow customers to stream and download all the music in the world, ignoring the fact that most consumers want music they like instead of all the music ever produced. People can now browse their friends' music collections - a tempting proposition given that friends will likely have similar tastes but also have new flavors to share as well.

The software itself isn't particular new. It has been possible to set up these types of peer networks for ages. What Grouper does is make the process painfully easy.

The software only works on Windows 2000 and Windows XP at the moment, which has left 7GB of my Mac music in a hostage crisis. And it's still in beta form, crashing once in the last couple of hours. It has, however, worked like a champ once ActiveX was enabled in XP - seemed worth the risk at the time - and has been tapped into a friend's machine in Texas for some time without problem.

Users link into the Grouper network via an e-mail confirmation process. Once in the software, you can pick the files you'd like to share and off you go. Grouper has a nice GUI that shows all the available files, the users linked in, the transfers and a Microsoft media player.

The music labels have complained for ages that P2P software allowed people to share files on an unnaturally large scale, and Grouper seems to solve this problem. Now, you're just using technology as a better means of sharing among friends. In addition, since it does not allow actual downloads of music, the software seems to be treading an uncomfortable line that the labels should not be able to complain too much about. How much of an effect on sales could just streaming chums' music have?

Beyond all of this, the software ensures solid downloads for users. No more dealing with suspect files put out by the RIAA or script kiddies. It's your friends' good name on the line, and that should be trusted.

At the moment, the company won't say word one about its plans. It hopes to have an official launch in 10 days time and will talk to the press then. A company official told us that it hoped to be in stealth mode until that time. Too late.

There is a goofy quality to the About section of the Grouper web site. One coworker suggested that it's so childishly Google-like that the whole site could be some kind of teenager's fantasy. We, however, have been assured that this is the real deal. Maybe Google can loan the Grouper folks some colored balls. ®

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