Gnutella spreading itself thin

Gnutella: should we believe the hype?

Predictions that Gnutella would quickly offer an effective file-swapping alternative to Napster, have proven premature, with the technology's own developers admitting more work is needed before it will take off as a way to trade free music and other digital wares.

Complaints of slow downloads and relatively complicated sign-up procedures have dampened enthusiasm for Gnutella, which is still waiting for major fixes after nine months in the open-source development tank. By contrast, Napster's popularity has continued to explode, despite the threat of a court-ordered shutdown that could put it out of business any day. That decision has been stayed since late July, pending an appeal.

"Gnutella is not for mainstream users who don't understand what an IP address is," said Ric Dube of digital music industry watcher, Webnoize. "Lack of speed only discourages a person once they figure out how to use it. But first they have to figure out how to use it."

With Napster hogging the file-sharing spotlight, even as the clock ticks down on its legal status, Gnutella developers are rattling the cage with new releases and the promise of a major upgrade.

Complicating the software program's future is a development effort that has branched down several different paths. Two updates were announced last week for two separate variations, for example, although neither promises to solve the stickiest problems facing the so-called peer-to-peer system.

Recent new arrivals include Bearshare, a Windows Gnutella client that was unleashed on Wednesday. Its developers say the new version reduces, but does not solve, traffic jams on the network.

Gnutella 0.93, meanwhile, made it's debut Tuesday, adding graphics to watch the progress of file transfers, a temporary download directory, and bandwidth throttling to help ease network jams.

Far bigger advances are promised soon in still another version of the software, although no release date has been set.

J C Nicholas of GnutellaWorld said his coterie of computer whiz kids have solved the application's slow-to-a-crawl network speed and the steeplechase it takes to use the application.

Long on hype, but short on specifics, Nicholas promises the "Internet earthquake" that he's calling Gnutella2, to be out "soon."

The file-swapping community has been down this blind alley before. When it first was introduced, Gnutella's hype far outshined its performance. By some estimates the file-swapping program that says it's bulletproof from any copyright lawsuits has been downloaded about 1 million times. Compare that to Napster's 50 million clients sitting on computer hard drives.

Even the Gnutella faithful say the technology is maddeningly slow to use, with slower computers on the network dragging on download and search speeds. Trying to get onto the network involves knowing more about computers, and the Internet in particular, than most in the mainstream can bear.

For a few days in July, it appeared the software program was going to be the dominant file-swapping force, when a judge ordered that Napster be shut down. Downloads picked up at the various Gnutella sites. But the momentum died on July 28, when a higher court lifted the injunction against Napster. Nicholas said his group is about to change all that.

"We are looking for an Internet earthquake that will bring a whole new view of the Internet, and a lot of good for humanity," Nicholas wrote in a series of e-mails.

He said his team of developers is readying its first upgrade, which apparently comes with an even bigger dose of bravado than before.

"I think this is going to be one of the greatest revolutions since Linux," Nicholas wrote. "It will revolutionise the way we exchange information on the Internet."

Nicholas wouldn't reveal just how Gnutella2 has managed to deal with slower computers on the network. But others in the Gnutella community speculate it involves limiting the number of messages going around the network, which at times takes up to 60 percent of the bandwidth.

Some developers have suggested, as well, that Gnutella could use software, already available, to create "super peers" for those slower computers. The "super peer" would serve as a proxy on the network for the slower computers. The computers would still get what they want but not act as speed bumps.

Nicholas wrote that Gnutella2 will tackle another pitfall: being able to expand.

"Right now, the problem with Gnutella is its scalability," Nicholas wrote. "We are working on a Gnutella that could support 20 million people and more."

Nicholas said Gnutella2 will also include a plug-in that will borrow the spare hard drive space of computers in the network and turn the collective into a supercomputer.

The practice is known as "distributed computing." Its poster child is SETI@home, which is run by the Search For Extraterrestrial Intelligence. SETI@home is a plug-in that sits on an individual's computer. When the computer isn't in use, the plug-in will borrow the hard drive space to analyse radar data.

But it's eternal life, not extraterrestrial life, that Gnutella will search for. Gnutella has three other projects in mind, the first to sift through existing research to find out what causes cell death, Nicholas says.

Two things Gnutella doesn't have to improve are its hype and its swagger.

Gnutella is perhaps the only major outlaw file-swapping player left standing without being tethered somehow to the Recording Industry Association of America, or some of its members. Napster and media monolith, Bertelsmann, which owns one of the five record companies suing Napster for piracy, have reached an agreement. They will drop their part of the lawsuit if Napster turns itself into a pay-for-use model.

Scour Exchange shut down and filed for bankruptcy protection after it was sued by the motion picture and recording industries over its file-sharing service.

Other pioneers, such as MP3.com, have also reached agreements with the record labels. The company has paid more than $150m to the RIAA to settle a series of copyright infringement lawsuits, and in exchange got licensing agreements.

Although some services are dancing with record companies, Nicholas writes that Gnutella2 is going to make the record companies angrier still.

"The music industry is really scared that digital music becomes uncontrollable. Obviously, people want it free," Nicholas writes. "The music industry has to find another business model. If they don't react quickly, they may be dead by next year."

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