Review of Irresistible Forces - The business legacy of Napster & the growth of the Underground Internet    

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Napster came into being only two years ago. In that short time the company and, in particular, its music-sharing software has kicked up a mighty storm, writes Dan Sumption.

On Napster's side, an estimated 58 million users signed up and made their personal collections available to one another. For the opposition, the music industry and their lawyers, with so much to lose, took on Napster and won. But although Napster may be dead (or at least neutered), it has left a legacy which cannot be ignored.

That said, the dust of the storm is still settling, and assessment of its long-term impact are currently limited to generalisations: "Peer-to-peer technology or distributed computing has tremendous opportunity for sharing resources or computing power", "Even selfish people [are] up for sharing as long as it [does] no harm to themselves".

And therein lies this book's major flaw: its title. The pages are almost devoid of business legacy. It's obvious that Merriden has tried his hardest, perhaps under duress from the book's publishers Capstone, to squeeze out every last drop of business implications from the Napster story, but the result makes for rather uninspiring reading.

The penultimate two chapters, which reel off descriptions of companies exploiting peer-to-peer technologies, read like regurgitated press releases. The only reasonable conclusion that can be drawn from the final few chapters is that there are a lot of little fish out there trying to pick up the bait left by Napster, but the winners in the long run are likely to be the big boys: Microsoft, Sun and Intel.

That said, the book as a whole is a very good read, absorbing and informative. The boxed side-notes on subjects such as how Napster works, who is using it and who is opposing it are easy to dip into and pack a great deal of relevant information into a small space. All the opposing viewpoints are covered in depth.

Merriden gives a detailed account of the growth of Napster and file-sharing technologies - perhaps a little too detailed in some instances. It was interesting to read that Shawn Fanning (Napster's founder) was conceived during a brief union between his mother and a musician at Shawn's uncle's graduation party, but perhaps a little tenuous to conclude that the 3,000-odd people who turned up at the party, rather than the 100 or so who were expected, were a precursor to the "wildfire word-of-mouth popularity of Napster".

Irresistible Forces is a great source of information on the history of Napster and the file-sharing movement, and is worth reading for this alone. However, if you are looking for insight into the effect Napster will have on the how business is done in the future then you will learn very little here.

© Dan Sumption, September 2001

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