“Free”—Can It Now Compete With iTunes?

by Aaron Wright May 03, 2006

It was announced on May 1st 2006 that would now be free… almost.

The service, which is currently only available to U.S residents, now lets you listen to any number of tracks from its extensive 2-million song library. The catch is that you can only listen to each song a maximum of five times before being asked to either purchase it or subscribe to the service. Once you’ve purchased the song, or subscribed to the service, you’re able to listen to it an unlimited amount of times or download it to your computer to transfer onto a portable device, such as an MP3 player.

The idea is clever in the abstract, and may attract some open minded folk and/or those who have never purchased music on the Internet before. However, before you get all excited at the prospect of free music, let me just tell you that the songs are played via the website on a Flash music player. The techno-heads out there will know that music will be streamed via the .SWF file format at a bit rate of 32Kbps. In other words, you will be listening to something that sounds as though it has a cold.

You know when a company is struggling for market share when it decides to offer music for free. So how else is going to fight for the right to party?

Along with offering free music, Napster has also introduced two new community gathering features to its site, Narchive and NapsterLinks, two areas of the site that were designed to work hand in hand. 


Narchive is Napsters way of bringing the music community together. Users are invited to join and contribute by adding their voices to the Narchive, sharing personal stories, memorabilia and photos of their favorite artists. It also works seamlessly with NapsterLinks in that users can add a link to their personal stories of any artist so that others can begin listening to the artist they are reading about—all for free.

Although not yet released, Narchive will soon be available as a Beta, offering pre-entered stories and biographies of thousands of artists worldwide.


NapsterLink is Napster’s way of getting its music across the Internet. You are able to send a link to anyone via e-mail, instant message, blogs and most importantly, websites of a certain artist or album, and once the link is clicked, Napsters flash music player loads and plays the song. I do wonder about this though. Surely users who were offered the link would need to be registered to Napster in order to listen? It doesn’t seem as straight forward as simply sending someone a link.

So Can It Compete with iTunes?

My answer?  No way!

The whole free music idea does sound appealing, I have to admit.  But that alone isn’t going to convert or even entice that many people to join the Napster service. First and foremost, this is only currently available in the U.S, and while America is a large country, it’s only comprised of 250-million or so people out of a 1.02 billion Internet users. So straight away, Napster is only being visited by a rather small minority, especially when you consider most Americans are probably using iTunes anyway.

Compatibility issues are something that doesn’t seem to bother Napster at all right now. Although its web-based service is ideal for anyone on any operating system, its software service is only available to PC users. Okay, so fair enough, 94% market share of the IT world belongs to PC’s, but disregarding the extra 5/6% of users who could be picked up on Mac and Linux operating systems seems like arrogance.

Furthermore, Napster has no compatibility with the iPod! For those of you just back from a lengthy stay in Timbuktu, the iPod is the biggest selling MP3 player in the world. Although Napster has done well to offer compatibility to 20+ good music players, it has missed the most important one of all, the iPod. Whether this is down to Apple being tight or simply because Napster didn’t think it stood a chance at gaining much market share from the tight iTunes + iPod duo, I don’t know. So if you’ve got an iPod or a Mac, forget about using Napster to transfer or download music, it ain’t gonna happen.

As the iPod is the biggest selling player in the world, there’s no real reason for iTunes to offer compatibility to any other player. So perhaps iTunes is frowned upon by those with other players, but one thing it has over Napster is that it is compatible with both PC and Mac.

Lastly, the Napster service isn’t as easy going as the iTunes service. Where users are forced to subscribe to the Napster service in order to purchase music, the iTunes service gives you the right of freedom. If you don’t fancy downloading music, don’t pay for it.  Unfortunately for Napster, you have to pay $9.95 a month if you want to become a member and listen to music, what’s worse is that you can only keep that music for as long as you’re a subscriber. The moment you don’t want Napster anymore is the moment you lose your entire music collection. They also offer another service called Napster-To-Go which is an extra $5 a month ($14.95 p/m in total) that allows you to transfer your music to any number of 20+ portable music players, but not the iPod.

Now lets look at iTunes. You don’t pay a subscription fee to listen to music, if you want something, you buy it out right for $0.99—from then on it’s yours to keep for life. Although it may appear to cost more for music on iTunes, it’s only because you are claiming the rights to own it, whereas with Napster you’re simply ‘renting’ the music. As far as complications with iTunes go, that’s it. Once you’ve purchased a song you can do almost anything with it, including burning it to CD, transfering it to your iPod, copying it from computer to computer.

Now judging from that, you can see why iTunes is so popular and why it will continue to be so popular. It offers music (and TV shows) to users at a fixed price with no major hassles in downloading. Although offering free music is a clever way to draw people in, Napster will never be as popular as iTunes unless it can replicate what it is doing. Of course, without a popular portable music player to call your own, the job is an even harder task than just simply copying the iTunes store.


  • I enjoyed your article.

    There are a number of subscription services on the internet, and a lot of people swear by them. However, as you stated, the vast majority prefer iTunes.

    For me it comes down to an ownership issue. If I build up an extensive collection of music that I love, I don’t want to have to keep subscribing to a service in order to keep my songs. To me, losing a favorite song is like losing something very special.

    I still use my MP3 primarily for uploading from my CDs so I can have music when I travel. When I download, though, it is unlikely that I will ever move to a service where I can potentially lose everything.

    As a writer, I’m at my computer a lot. I can relate to a comment by a writer on Motley Fool when he said that he thinks of his computer as a stereo.

    Thanks again. I’m always interested in what music services offer.

    With the astronomical success of iTunes, I’m wondering why more aren’t imitating it. Napster isn’t really offering anything new, so I suspect you’re right. It won’t compete.


    Janet Meyer had this to say on May 03, 2006 Posts: 36
  • it’s a great PR ploy but its effect will only last a week, as the two audiences interested will be stopped at the long registration process or the fidelity.

    For casual listeners, they’ll be stopped at the registration - after all, you can listen to all the free music at Amazon as many times as you want - just search and click on PLAY. While Nap probably has more songs available to listen to, it’s not like casual listeners are going to drift far from the Top 100.

    For stream recorders, the fidelity is just too low to continue.

    It’s a good Pr & marketing effort. This will slow their rate of descent for a few weeks longer and who knows, you might convert a few samplers but in the long run - sub music will work as a loss leader like Yahoo Music but not as a standalone business not with p2p, itunes, satelite radio, internet radio, regular radio and CD’s - sub music puts all the work of listening on the listener - ultimately not tenable.

    jbelkin had this to say on May 03, 2006 Posts: 41
  • There is just one important lesson for you to learn.


    Please get your facts right.  This is not a Napster problem but an Apple problem as they have refused to license their DRM so that alternative online music stores can take advantage of the iPod.  The only music bought online that is capable of playing on the iPod is the iTMS.  Until Apple licenses (un)Fiarplay to other music stores for them to use as their DRM, no other online bought will EVER play on the iPod.

    This is why the French have the right idea with forcing Apple to open their DRM.  Apple is currently a monopoly of the worst kind within the digital music space, and needs to be tamed.  No other music stores have a shot, and that’s a shame.  So, inessence, the ONLY real reason why the iTMS is so popular is simply because the iPod is so popular. 

    iPod users are forced to use iTunes (regardless of whether they like it not) because it is the only service which is capable of playing on the iPod, and non-iPod owners are forced to use anyone but the iTMS (regardless of how good it may be) because Itunes tracks can’t be played on anything but the iPod.

    e:leaf had this to say on May 03, 2006 Posts: 32
  • This article is so absurdly written that many of the facts are twisted to give ITune the so called better usability for the user.

    As posted by leaf, iTune is the one that tie down the choice of mp3 players for the users.  You can only play songs downloaded from iTune on iPod where as you can play Napster songs on vast variety of players.

    If you don’t want to pay the subscription for unlimited songs, you can buy songs from Napster just like iTune.  Then you will have full right of the music till death.  Napster simply give user more options to how they want to listen to music than iPod.  I don’t know why there’s even an argument on how one prefers iTune because you can buy songs without paying monthly fee.  Hello?! Napster does the same and more!

    Clearly, Mr. Wright is not as techno-savy or open minded as he should be.

    orange had this to say on May 03, 2006 Posts: 1
  • orange is right.  Besides, iPods might be popular but they are wildly over priced for what you get.  I’ll stick with my unpopular MP3 player and buy and own the music I want from Napster or even Wal-Mart.  They sell their tunes for 88 cents.  Beat that iTunes!

    saynotoipods had this to say on May 03, 2006 Posts: 1
  • I don’t know why there’s even an argument on how one prefers iTune because you can buy songs without paying monthly fee.

    Exactly.  Personally, I think iTMS is crippled without a subscription service.  Not everyone (myself included) wants to “own” every bit of music they listen to, but that’s the only option ITMS currently offers.

    I’m reluctant to purchase unfamiliar music from iTMS so an affordable subscription would be a conveniently customizable “try before buy” service for me.  Apple’s losing my business by not offering a choice to both “rent” and “own”.

    Anyone who doesn’t understand that argument is clearly not being open minded about the issue, regardless of how they choose to obtain the music they listen to.  Just like with videos (and other products), some people may only want to rent music; some may only want to buy it.  Others would prefer doing both.  And of course there are the freeriders. wink

    sjk had this to say on May 03, 2006 Posts: 112
  • 6.3 billion internet users? Are you kidding? That’s the entire world’s population. Unless there are no longer third-world countries or children, I think you’re guessing a bit high.

    Oskar had this to say on May 04, 2006 Posts: 86
  • I have a Mac, an 3Gen iPod and I use iTunes. I do this because they are the best of the options I have available. No one forces you to purchase an iPod. No one forces you to use iTMS.

    There are other options available. You can buy a Sony player and use their software. One guy I know has. It works, kinda. But as far as I am concerned, iTunes is the best jukebox and iPod is the best player, just on ease of use.

    But the big problem with ALL online stores is DRM. Wherever you buy a download, it’s crippled with DRM. It’s a hassle to back up and you run the risk that if you don’t, your HD will die and it’s bye-bye music. I’ll continue to buy CDs, although not many, and be free to do what I want with stuff I’ve paid for.

    And for the record, iTMS has been giving away free songs for ages; every week there is a free single available for download.

    Dan Ebeck had this to say on May 04, 2006 Posts: 23
  • I apologise for the 6.3 billion internet users lark.  I clearly got my stats mixed up whilst I was concentrating on other areas of the article - Pretty unprofessional of me.  There’s about 1.02 billion internet users on the planet, not 6.3.

    Aaron Wright had this to say on May 04, 2006 Posts: 104
  • I just took a trip over to Napster. I gotta admit, they are doing some things right.

    I started by looking at the extensive catalog. I looked up some of my older favorites, some CDs I had considered but not bought yet, and thinking of the chance to sample each one five times…lets just say I had to wipe a little drool off my chin.

    Earlier services that I looked at (and I have to admit that I haven’t checked this out for awhile) required subscriptions. You could purchase individual songs, but you also had to subscribe. It doesn’t look like this for Napster. I can’t speak for others.

    What I think they are doing best, though, is marketing. I registered (the process was pretty simple and quick) and received an email about the ease of emailing songs to friends or putting them on your blog or website. This would be an good way for people to share favorite songs.

    I have to admit to liking the idea of Narchive, too.

    As for my business, neither Napster nor other sites will benefit financially. I tend to buy CDs and don’t see changing that. I wouldn’t have an MP3 at all except it makes traveling with my music very very easy.

    Since I don’t download, I haven’t looked all that closely at iTunes. Maybe they make music sharing as easy as Napster. If they don’t, I think they should consider it. It’s that kind of viral marketing that will help Napster the most.

    I’m not too concerned for iTunes, though. Steve Jobs has proven himself over and over again. If Napster actually proves to be competition, you’ll see some changes in iTunes.

    Janet Meyer had this to say on May 04, 2006 Posts: 36
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