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Napster launches portable player-friendly music service

Will 'change the music industry forever'

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Napster today formally launched Napster To Go (NTG), the portable music subscription service trialled since last Autumn, which it bullishly claims will "change the music industry forever".

Based on Microsoft's Windows Media 10 technology, NTG allows songs to be downloaded to a PC and transferred to a compatible music player with their DRM data intact.

The upshot is that transferred songs will become unplayable should your subscription lapse, but the quid pro quo is that Napster doesn't charge you twice: your usual subscription fee plus an extra per-track payment to transfer each song to your player, which is what it's had to do to date.

Why is that second payment no longer necessary? Formerly, transferred songs did not count as a subscription download, but as a one-off non-expiring download, according to the terms of Napster's music licences. In effect, this necessitated a second purchase of songs already legally acquired.

NTG neatly sidesteps the problem, by retaining the subscription status on the transferred track. Naturally, Napster charges more for the service - £15 a month in the UK, compared to its regular £10 monthly subscription fee. But punters no longer have to pay extra for each song they copy to, say, their Creative Zen Micro.

NTG is good news for Napster too, as the higher margin service is key to the company's plan to rapidly grow revenues and thus its profitability. Like Apple's iTunes, Napster offers one-off downloads, but its focus is on subscriptions. It reckons that consumers will prefer this music acquisition model, going forward.

This is a moot point. Subscriptions certainly match the way many people are now used to paying for TV content, whether by satellite, cable or terrestrial - what, after all, is the UK TV licence fee, but an annual subscription? But music is different: consumers have spent the last 50-odd years buying music on a one-off basis, to keep, not to lose should they fail to keep up the payments.

If Napster succeeds, it will be a revolution in music purchasing, but mass-market success is by no means guaranteed. Failure will not be for want of trying, though - Napster will promote NTG through a "major multi-million marketing campaign" with retail and device partners.

Napster increased worldwide subscribers by 90,000 to 270,000 in the three months to 31 December 2004, the company's third quarter of fiscal 2005. It publishes Q3 earnings on 9 February.

NTG is implemented in a new version of Napster's eponymous jukebox software, Napster 3.0. ®

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