Supertracks aims to change your listening habits

The start-up promises new technology that lets you transfer music directly to your hard drive--improving quality and reducing the costs of Internet broadcasting.

Supertracks, a start-up forced to give up its first digital music initiative, is proposing a way to slash the costs of Internet broadcasting.

The Portland, Ore., company Tuesday will announce a technology that transfers a large selection of music to computer users' hard drives, allowing them to listen to it later in the order arranged by a radio station or other programmers. Supertracks' system includes software that prevents users from changing that order or sharing song files with others, as users do on Napster Inc. or other music-download services.

Most radio stations or other Internet broadcasters use a technique called streaming, in which songs are transmitted to users at the moment they are played. No copy of the music is kept on users' personal computers.

But streaming is becoming a big cost burden to Internet broadcasters, setting off a round of industry soul-searching that is almost as intense as the legal debate over Napster. Unlike conventional broadcasters, radio stations must add additional computing and communications capacity for each new listener.

Supertracks estimates that a computer user who listens 1.5 hours a day can cost the broadcaster $81 annually for music of relatively high quality. And many users are listening to many more hours, running up much higher costs. The company says broadcasters that adopt its alternative system, called Bridgeport, would cap their annual costs at about $15 a user, no matter what the listening time.

That comparison assumes an initial collection of about 400 song tracks and about 100 new tracks swapped out per month. Much of the communications savings is based on the fact that many radio stations repeat the same songs; with streaming, those songs must be sent to each user over and over, while they only arrive once with Bridgeport. Another benefit is that users can listen to music when they aren't connected to the Internet.

The downside is the time needed for the initial download, expected to take up about 800 megabytes of space on a user's hard drive. Supertracks estimates it takes five hours for a user with a 56-kilobit modem to complete the initial download, though considerably less with a faster connection. The company expects many users to turn their machines on at night when they first sign up for the system.

Supertracks initially set out to help major record labels sell downloaded music. But the closely held company wound up shifting strategies and laying off a third of its staff when those companies' plans took shape slowly and competition from Napster arose.

Charles Jennings, Supertracks' chief executive officer, said the company was inspired by provisions of the Digital Millennium Copyright Act. That 1998 law makes broadcasters eligible for a forthcoming set of compulsory music licenses if they meet such requirements as not playing more than three songs from a CD in a three-hour period. Bridgeport helps enforce those rules.

But the system requires Microsoft's Windows Media software--it doesn't work with RealNetworks' popular technology--and has only been tested by one Portland radio station so far. But Sujata Ramnarayan, an analyst at Gartner Group, thinks the idea has advantages, particularly over the herky-jerky quality of streamed radio. "What they are offering is very compelling," she says.