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And Napster is just for starters. A couple of weeks ago, a similar piece of software called Gnutella was released. Written by the programmers who founded Nullsoft, the company that created the Winamp MP3 player, it set off a huge sensation on the Net. Unfortunately, Nullsoft had been acquired by AOL months before, and AOL was a trifle upset that principals in one of its acquired companies had just hacked together a little copyright-busting program. Well, that’s one theory; the other is that AOL had sanctioned the project all along, and got cold -- hell, frostbitten -- feet once it set about merging with copyright colossus Time Warner. Within 24 hours, AOL had demanded and gotten Nullsoft to remove Gnutella code from its Web site.
Gnutella does Napster one better by enabling peer-to-peer sharing of nearly every kind of file, not just MP3s. ”It does executables, it does zip files, it does video files, audio files, any kind of files -- and you can add your own extensions within the client,“ says Louis, who got a look at the code before AOL clamped down.
Gnutella solved another problem with Napster, according to Stein: ”The major innovation is that it allows servers to chain to each other and share information about what each one has got. This removes one of the Napster problems, which is that each server becomes a bottleneck.“ Concurs Louis, ”Gnutella takes the Napster concept and removes the server from it -- you have more of a decentralized Napster.“
At the moment, according to Louis, Gnutella also lacks something essential: a good password-protection system so that you can create private groups, essential in a competitive, trade-secret-stealing corporate environment. Not to worry. As you read this, some open-sourcer is probably writing such a system.
”With a tool like Gnutella, my hard drive can become a portion of a larger hard drive,“ says Louis. ”I could have a marketing hard drive, a finance hard drive, an HR [human- resources] hard drive of which only a portion would be sitting on my computer. Compare this to current corporate client-server systems where you have to deliberately save a file to the corporate server -- and to your own hard drive. Forget to save it to one or the other, and you‘ll be stuck without your work or somebody else’s later revision. With a a Gnutella-like system, you‘d continually have the most updated versions, without having to remember to separately save them.“
The broader implications of Gnutella are not lost on Napster. Although Kessler defends the server-based system (”We plan to continue focusing on a server-based approach. Other serverless designs can’t handle large numbers of simultaneous users“), he adds that the company always had bigger ambitions for the product. ”Collaborative communities of users sharing content is exactly what we‘re about. Extending our approach to distributed, collaborative work groups is a possible future direction for Napster,“ Kessler says. And Napster will be adding support for Microsoft’s Windows Media Format files in its next release, which should facilitate the development of extensions, Kessler explains.
AOL did not move fast enough to quash the sensation over Gnutella. ”They‘ve opened Pandora’s box,“ says Louis. Thousands heard about it on the geek must-read Slashdot Web site, which funneled 10,000 download requests to Gnutella the first morning, causing the software‘s creators to beg off the site. Louis says that at one point he was connected to 828 hosts running Gnutella, with 182,889 files already offering a wide selection of software, music and movies, including the newly released Pitch Black and Erin Brockovich, along with more obvious titles, such as The Matrix, Monty Python and the Holy Grail and the almost redundant Hackers. That’s .9 terabyte of software -- one week after Gnutella was announced, and just as quickly yanked.
A few Century City lawyers are undoubtedly fanning themselves with this paper. But farsighted executives like Louis are seeing a whole new world: ”Gnutella could potentially allow you to massively distribute files across a large network of people because it lets you both download and stream.“ Louis also suggests that Gnutella technology could be the backbone of the next generation of search engines: ”Not only would it index the pages for the server administrator, but it could also report back to a mainstream search engine. With a service a la Gnutella, you could have every Web site call back the search-engine directory to post the changes they had.“ In fact, another piece of Napster-like software, Imesh (www.imesh.com), has already set out to create a new search structure.
But enough already with the Napster accolades: Remember, the software helps people share files by scanning their hard drives -- doesn‘t anyone find that pros-pect scary?
”Technically, it wouldn’t be that hard to open up a hole in Napster to find stuff that is not scanned,“ warns Louis. Kessler reassures users that ”Napster has taken extreme measures to prevent access to any files on our users‘ computers other than the audio files our users have chosen to share. Our client verifies that only valid MP3 files are shared, and will only transmit those valid files.“ All we can say is, we hope so. Because we’re not just talking your basic asshole virus writer. Microsoft already went through a scandal over its Web site‘s ”helpful“ detection of every program on your system. One nightmare scenario would have copyright holders rooting around your hard drive, disabling stuff that in their opinion you weren’t supposed to have in the first place. So much for that little Fourth Amendment thing.
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