Napster hit by defecting users

Analysts believe that a red hot Dutch peer-to-peer company is on track to be the next successful song-swapper

The latest figures show that Napster has been haemorrhaging users over the last four months while rival song-swapping sites are booming.

Analyst firm Webnoize said on Wednesday there were typically only 120,000 users logged onto Napster at any one time during June, compared to an average of 1.57 million simultaneous users back in February. This drop in popularity, combined with attempts to stop the illegal song sharing, has meant a 95 percent drop in the number of files shared across Napster.

Webnoize believes that only 140 million songs were downloaded using Napster last month. In February, demand for Napster peaked at 2.79 billion.

Napster has been offline for more than a week as it attempts to introduce audio fingerprinting technology which will stop unauthorised material from being shared on the service. A federal judge on Wednesday ordered that it could not resume operations until it had proved it could prevent illegal music trading.

Since Napster began trying to block unauthorised file swapping, in return for not being closed down, users have been switching their allegiance to other song-sharing sites. The music labels, fresh from their successful campaign against Scour, are already bringing legal action against Aimster -- one of the more famous Napster alternatives.

There are a great many such services, and experts have found it difficult to predict which, if any, could reach the popularity achieved by Napster. Webnoize, though, is sticking its neck out and predicting that a music sharing service based in the Netherlands is set for big things.

According to Webnoize, Fasttrack is on track to become the "new Napster". It calculates that in June 225,000 simultaneous users downloaded 370 million songs using Fasttrack's peer-to-peer technology.

As well as making it more popular than Napster is today, these figures mean that Fasttrack is as popular as Napster was back in April 2000 -- with its user base doubling during June. "If current growth rates continue, a million users will typically be logged onto the Fasttrack network by the end of the summer," said Lee Black, director of research at Webnoize.

Fasttrack has licenced its peer-to-peer technology to services such as KaZaA, MusicCity and Grokster. The Dutch company claims that "over seven million copies of software based on the FastTrack technology have been deployed." It is thought to be planning to launch the software under a subscription model in the future.

Fasttrack has the potential to be even more of a threat to the establishment than Napster. As well as songs, users can share other types of media such as images and video. "This makes the copyright issues Napster currently faces seem like child play," cautions Webnoize.

Webnoize also warns that Fasttrack would be very hard for a third-party to shut down. It does not use central servers, and also relies on a piece of network architecture called "SuperNodes" which manage to keep the service running quickly by discarding unnecessary search requests.

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