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Microsoft has announced plans to compete with Apple and Napster for the increasingly crowded market for music downloads. Few details are forthcoming at this time.

It is too early to tell whether the double whammy of aggressive legal action against file-sharing by the RIAA and the development of relatively low-cost, reliable, and diverse legal services for music downloads will cut down on file-sharing. I have contended all along that most people would prefer to stay within the law if they can get what they want cheaply and easily. We see over and over in the history of technology that early adapters often push much further than corporate interests are ready to go, putting technologies to purposes for which they were clearly not intended, demonstrating demands and interests which were not anticipated, and exploring new cultural and social practices which are innovative in the fullest sense of the word. Companies move more slowly to absorb what they can, shut down what they can’t absorb, and where-ever possible, figure out how to profit from the public’s interests. In that sense, pirates are a vital part of the innovation cycle. For more on this, check out Deborah L. Spar’s excellent book, Ruling the Waves: A History of Business and Politics along the Technological Frontier.

The question is whether the new services have diagnosed what the public wants correctly. Is the point the download or is it the community which has emerged around the exchange of music (and information about music)? If the later, these new services are making little progress towards incorporating the communal nature of Napster et al into their business models. It may be in fact that the Napster experiment will fuel multiple waves of corporate development and that the current download services will be surpassed by whatever entrepreneur fully grasps what was transformative about file-sharing.

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