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SONG-SHARING service goes dark amid upgrades, dwindling user base

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SAN JOSE, Calif. (AP) _ You could call it The Day The Music Stalled: Napster's song sharing service was offline Monday as it worked to transform itself into a music company for paying customers.

Napster didn't say when its computer servers would come back online, and it wasn't clear exactly how the downtime related to its planned launch of a paid subscription service, promised for later this summer.

Napster also has been upgrading its system to better comply with court orders that it prevent unauthorized music-swapping.

``File transfers have been temporarily suspended while Napster upgrades the databases that support our new file identification technology. Keep checking this space for updates. Thanks for your support!'' read a message on Napster's homepage Monday.

The Redwood City-based company has been scrambling lately to include advanced music-identification features as it complies with a federal injunction in a copyright lawsuit brought by record labels.

Napster spokespersons did not immediately return calls to The Associated Press seeking comment Monday on the system status.

The company has begun playing hardball lately with its users who have long traded MP3 file versions of popular music with little regard to copyright issues. The latest version of the Napster application, a forced upgrade to the system which no longer allows the use of previous versions, contains new filtering technology to identify song files accurately.

While Napster makes changes to its system, the habits of its users are changing as well. Specifically, they're looking elsewhere for free music. Gnutella-type file-sharing services like WinMX, LimeWire and BearShare continued to enjoy robust user numbers in the face of thinning trades on Napster.

According to the latest research from the Internet research firm Webnoize, the crackdown on Napster has given impetus to users to share fewer files that can make it through Napster's latest filters. The result _ a drastic drop in the number of songs shared and the number of users sharing them.

Webnoize found that users currently share an average of 1.5 songs each on Napster's service, a dramatic drop from 220 songs shared per user during peak activity in February. Napster's new application is proving to be a bust for music fans.

Napster is testing fingerprinting technology for its planned commercial service, said Webnoize senior analyst Matt Bailey. ``By further reducing the music available through the current service, Napster has provided another nail in the coffin of the service consumers originally loved.''

Fewer songs means fewer reasons for users to log on to Napster, the research found. On June 27, a snapshot of Napster activity revealed 320,000 users logged on to the network, compared to an average 1.57 million simultaneous users in February at the peak of the service.

Normal fluctuations in the Napster usage does not account for the sharp decline of music traders online, Bailey said.

``With little music available now, users continue to drift away from Napster,'' Bailey said.

The chat rooms on Napster were still functional Monday and were mostly filled with folks complaining about the inability to download.

One chatter going by the handle ``independent_rocker'' wrote, ``Has anyone been able to d/l anything at all?'' which drew replies of ``nope'' and ``hardly'' from the room.

Another person in the chat room using the handle ``napmego'' wrote ``Looks like the noose is tightening.''

The new fee-based Napster has no specific launch date, but has been promised before summer's end by German media giant Bertlesmann AG, Napster's primary financial backer.
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