How the Old Napster Worked

First Came MP3

If you have read How MP3 Files Work, then you are familiar with the MP3 format for digital music. You know that you can download MP3 files from the Internet and play them on your computer, listen to them on a portable MP3 player or even burn your own CDs. The advantage of the MP3 format is that it makes song files small enough to move around on the Internet in a reasonable amount of time.

The initial MP3 craze was fueled by sites like On these sites, anyone can upload a song. The songs are then stored on a server that is part of the Web site. Other users can connect to the Web site and download songs they are interested in. Another way of obtaining MP3 files is to perform a search on the title or artist that you are looking for. Quite often, the search would return a lot of links that were broken, meaning that the Web page could not be found.

In early 1999, Shawn Fanning began to develop an idea as he talked with friends about the difficulties of finding the kind of MP3 files they were interested in. He thought that there should be a way to create a program that combined three key functions into one. These functions are:

  • Search engine: Dedicated to finding MP3 files only
  • File sharing: The ability to trade MP3 files directly, without having to use a centralized server for storage
  • Internet Relay Chat (IRC): A way to find and chat with other MP3 users while online

Fanning, only 18 at the time, spent several months writing the code that would become the utility Napster. He uploaded the original beta version to, where it quickly became one of the hottest downloads on the site. Shawn knew he had stumbled on to something big.