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Schools' bandwidth woes are music to Ruckus's ears

The students who've been descending on university campuses this month have much higher expectations than I did during my undergrad years. They expect not just a cinderblock room with a phone line and a dark corner to stash dirty laundry. They demand cable TV, broadband Internet, and hot-and-cold running digital music, says David Galper, the 29-year old cofounder of Ruckus Network.

At least that's the pitch that Ruckus, along with bigger media players like RealNetworks and Napster, is making. The three companies say that illegal downloading and the resulting bandwidth bog-downs have become a serious problem for schools, and they're vying with each other to get their totally legal, subscription-based services into dorm rooms as aggressively as high-strung high school seniors angle for a spot in the Ivy League. Last week, Apple leaped into the scrum, unveiling a discount program for universities that purchase large numbers of songs from its iTunes Music Store.

The competition is about to get much more interesting. Though Napster, RealNetworks, and Apple boast more recognizable brand names than tiny Ruckus -- and more deals with colleges so far -- Ruckus plans to announce next week that it has raised its first significant round of venture capital from Battery Ventures in Wellesley and Shelter Capital Partners in Los Angeles.

And Ruckus, which has engineering offices in Boston and corporate headquarters in Virginia, will also release the news that Bill Raduchel, formerly chief technology officer at AOL and chief strategy officer at Sun Microsystems, has signed on as Ruckus's first chief executive.

But can they convince universities that supplying free digital music to students is as essential to the college experience as textbooks and Red Bull?

College students, with an endless craving for free music and a near-endless supply of free time, are among the biggest perpetrators of illegal downloads. (Last summer, you may recall, the recording industry subpoenaed several Boston-area schools to get the names of students who had been using illegal file-sharing services like Kazaa.) Their downloading activity can put major strains on a college's network infrastructure.

But the music services being offered by the likes of Ruckus and Napster can't really claim that they will put an end to illegal downloading. If a student doesn't find the latest hit single on the legal service offered by her university, she may still go to an illegal site to get it. Or she may be frustrated at some of the services' inability to supply a file that can be played on a portable MP3 player, or burned onto a CD.

"We in no way prevent illegal downloading," Galper admits. "But when students begin to use our product, we think they'll naturally be using less peer-to-peer services."

Galper says that in addition to music, Ruckus will offer streamed full-length movies -- the current version of the product lists "Clerks," "Scream 2," and "Some Like It Hot," among others -- and television shows on demand. Music offered by Ruckus ranges from Dire Straits to Ol' Dirty Bastard. So far, its service has been deployed at only one school, Northern Illinois University; Napster's collegiate version is available on eight campuses.

Napster and RealNetworks charge universities between $2 and $3 a month per student to give students access to their services, and Apple will offer a discount of as much as 20 percent on its standard 99-cents-a-song price tag.

Galper won't disclose Ruckus's pricing, but someone who has met with the company pegs it at $5 a month.

Galper says only that "we don't really feel like it's an apples-to-apples comparison, since we offer movies and a community section where students can submit zany photos and videos."

The other services sell music, mainly. Ruckus will add more community features, including a "social networking" application that will help students meet others, based on common interests, later this year.

"Will people use it to date?" Galper says. "I think so."

Talk about your killer apps.

Galper and Scott Tobin, a partner at Battery Ventures, emphasize that Ruckus is not only a music service, but a "portal" and an "online community" for students. (It has been a long time since those 1990s buzzwords have been spoken with a straight face.) The challenge there will be to create content that students will actually care about, when they have the whole wide Web to choose from.

But the central question for Ruckus, iTunes, Napster, and RealNetworks is whether universities will shell out.

Jerry Grochow, vice president for information services and technology at MIT, says "we have not yet come to the conclusion" that students require an unlimited, free supply of music paid for by the university. Babson College in Wellesley has had discussions with Ruckus, but is taking a wait-and-see approach.

Some schools will want to show the recording industry that they're making a good-faith effort to fight piracy, even if they can't stop it cold, and they will cut deals with one of the four music suppliers.

But I don't see digital music services becoming a campus must-have as rapidly as has, say, wireless Internet access. You can call me a fogey (and I'm also a music lover), but I'm not sure how hot-and-cold running music contributes something positive to the collegiate social or educational experience.

Soft on MassachusettsMicrosoft chief executive Steve Ballmer gave a breakfast speech at a meeting of the Massachusetts Software Council last week that attracted a near-capacity crowd of more than 700 people.

What struck me was a slide Ballmer used -- PowerPoint, of course -- to emphasize Massachusetts's important place in the software industry. Most of the firms listed on the slide were dead or had been swallowed up by bigger players: Digital Equipment, Lotus, Wang, VisiCalc, BBN. One company, privately held Candide Media Works, not only has infinitesimally low name recognition, but is headquartered in New York.

Joyce Plotkin, the council's executive director, says she supplied the company names to Ballmer's speechwriter. She focused on those that had a big historical impact on the software industry in Massachusetts, not necessarily on major players today.

"There were questions about picking the winners now," she says. "That would've seemed like we were playing favorites."

Groove Networks showed up on the list because Microsoft is a major investor in the company. Ray Kurzweil is on the council's board, so Kurzweil Technologies was on the list. David Solomont, chairman of Candide, was one of the founders of the Software Council. (Solomont tells me the company has a Boston office.)

But the slide made Massachusetts's software sector look like a dusty history museum, rather than a lively, competitive place.

Scott Kirsner is a contributing editor at Fast Company. He can be reached at skirsner@verizon.net.

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