Juno's controversial plan to rent space on your PC

Summary:Borrowing a page from SETI@Home, the Juno Virtual Supercomputer Project wants to sells time and space on subscribers's PCs.

Internet-service provider Juno Online Services, which operates in the hard-hit free-subscription market, is adding a new line of business: supercomputing.

Charles E. Ardai, president and chief executive officer of the nation's third-largest ISP, said Thursday that he wants Juno (jweb) to become the leader in online virtual supercomputing and expects to begin testing the Juno Virtual Supercomputer Project in coming months.

The venture will require participating Juno customers to keep their computers on at all times so Juno, of New York, can sell unused time and space on its customers' hard drives to third parties such as scientific researchers who want to solve large computational problems. The practice of using many computers at once to answer such bioinfomatic questions at a faster rate is called distributed computing.

Juno is still working out the details of its plan, but Ardai said in the future, subscribers who want to get free access to the Internet may be required to participate in the project. This means they will have to download Juno's computational software and likely a new screen-saver as well, and leave their computers on all the time. Juno is one of the largest free ISPs with more than three million subscribers. It has 842,000 paid subscribers. Free subscribers who don't want to participate may be asked to pay for a subscription, he said.

"It's a new way to derive revenue from a subscriber base of millions of users we already have," Ardai said. "There will be some people who like it and want to participate and some who don't -- that's their privilege."

Distributed computing is growing rapidly among scientific researchers but still novel for a commercial enterprise. The most widely known project on the Internet is the SETI Institute Online, or Search for Extraterrestrial Intelligence. In the past 18 months, 2.8 million households have donated their unused computer time to the project, equal to 500,000 years of computing time, according to SETI@Home, the arm responsible for at-home participation. Distributed computing works by using software that detects when the owner is on or off the computer; if the owner gets on the computer while it is being used for a third-party project, the owner takes priority.

Juno is in discussions with some potential third-party customers to rent time on their users' computers, but no agreements have been signed, Ardai said. The company is still deciding how much money to charge third-parties and has yet to determine what percentage of overall revenue the project could attribute.

Free ISPs, which widely rely on revenue from advertising, are one of the most-troubled sectors of the Internet as online ad spending continues to slow. Juno is no exception, said Fred Moran, an analyst with Jeffries & Co. Inc., in New York.

"The company has burned through almost all the cash that Wall Street funded it with," Moran said. "As a result of their lack of financing and subsequent inability to invest in growth, their revenue growth has stagnated." The company said the $56 million it has in cash will be sufficient until the company is cash-flow positive.

Juno's move into supercomputing is a way to increase revenue using existing assets. Shares of Juno fell 41 cents, or 15.6%, to $2.22 in 4 p.m. Nasdaq Stock Market trading, down from a 52-week high of $31.

Although the move doesn't raise too many red flags with privacy advocates, there are some concerns. At the top of the list are how well Juno will inform users about the project and whether the software will cause users' computers to crash.

Also, some Juno customers might not want to be told to keep their computers on all the time. "There seems to be some confusion about whose computer this is," said Richard Smith, chief technology officer of the nonprofit Privacy Foundation in Denver. "I think there will be a lot of push-back from customers."

Topics: PCs

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