This is the first column in a biweekly series about current technology issues. Every other week, we will analyze the latest products, developments and happenings in the technology world.
For a student seeking a new song or album, there has been one place to go: Napster. Now that may change and students may be disappointed to learn that the service will start charging its users as early as June, according to Napster CEO Hank Barry.
Last year, Napster forged a strategic alliance with media giant Bertelsmann and announced its plans to eventually charge customers a subscription fee but did not specify any specific timeframe for implementing the new system. Now the companies are planning to implement the fees sometime in the early summer.
The new subscription fees might enable Napster to compensate the artists and labels of the music swapped through the service. This measure would be attractive to the company because it now is fighting a lawsuit against the Recording Industry Association of America, which represents all the major music labels. At worst, the Napster-Bertelsmann combo would only be able to offer songs from EMI and BMG. Both record labels are part of Bertelsmann, pending merger approval.
Napster's user base has grown rapidly to almost 60 million registered users, but the company needs to start charging customers in order to increase its revenue. Napster's main challenge will be to retain its users once it begins charging for a service that has always been free. Retaining users could become a problem now because there are many other alternatives.
Competing products like OpenNap -a free, open-source software project that uses the same protocol as Napster - stand to significantly increase their number of users once Napster begins to charge fees. Gnutella, Aimster, iMesh and Groove are other competing programs. All are free and have the ability to swap music files.
There are also a number of Web sites that already sell digital music over the Internet. Emusic.com has been selling mp3s for some time, but with the high number of mp3s available for free on Napster, there was little reason for consumers to pay for the music. Once Napster begins to charge, sites like Emusic and Listen.com can expect their sales to increase. Mp3.com, a free service, will also stand to profit from Napster's decision.
Many Napster users will bolt to new services and Web sites, but the new plan could still be a success. After all, Napster's brand recognition is strong, and its service is easy to operate. The key for Napster will be to make it as simple - and as cheap - as possible for its existing users to pay for their music. Otherwise they are likely to continue to steal it, but from another source.
Spotting sports fans on the sly
Even as a scary combination of Steven Tyler, Britney Spears and 'NSync rattled out their version of halftime entertainment, the local authorities were scanning through the thousands of football fans and corporate executives in attendance at Super Bowl XXXV.
Using a new technology that uses cameras and digital-imaging techniques, local police and the FBI were able to compare the images of people passing through the turnstiles with those of known criminals. Amazingly, these comparisons were done at the rate of one million per minute, a figure that seemingly would allow police to scan the entire country in just a few hours if they could get everyone in one place.
The scanning, done without the fans' knowledge, was done as a trial run of the new technology. Although no arrests were made as a result of the trial, the technology still raises privacy concerns, especially since it may eventually appear in ATMs as well as other closed-circuit camera systems.
Awareness of privacy issues will probably continue to increase in the near future. A bill recently introduced to Congress by Sen. John Edwards (D-N.C.) seeks to prevent companies from setting "cookies" on a user's computer without first asking permission.
This act probably would be ineffective. Companies that are likely to abuse the information provided by cookies easily could avoid regulation through various methods, such as changing their country of incorporation. Nevertheless, the bill increases the chances that Congress will pass a privacy bill of some form this year.
John Ashcroft, President Bush's new attorney general, also has promised to re-examine online privacy issues such as the implementation of the FBI's controversial Carnivore system. The FBI can use Carnivore to monitor all communication through a particular Internet Service Provider. The system is used as an online wiretap, but many groups have taken issue with the fact that it collects all communication through an ISP rather than only that of a specific suspect, somewhat similar to monitoring an entire town's phone calls rather than just those of the suspect residing in the town.
Putting the brakes on speeding
The British government is now testing a new technology that can govern the speed of cars, regardless of the driver's wishes.
The prototype combines a Global Positioning System receiver with a speed-limiter. Thus, a car's location is pinpointed, the local speed limit is checked, and if the car is traveling too rapidly it can be slowed automatically.
(Nick Lawler is a third-year College student studying abroad at the London School of Economics.)