AOL's loose cannon: Justin Frankel

The programmer's an employee of America Online, but the creator of Gnutella's has a funny way of saying thank you.

Justin Frankel has a funny way of saying thank you.

Last year, America Online Inc. (aol) bought Frankel's online music company, Nullsoft, for $86 million. It gave him a job creating software in San Francisco with the title of Nullsoft director.

Frankel has, in fact, devised some software -- but not the kind AOL was expecting. The latest creation of the 21-year-old programmer enables users of AOL's wildly popular Instant Messenger to delete the ads from the online chat program. What's more, a Web site owned by Nullsoft -- and ultimately AOL -- has been giving away the software.

"It's kind of a slap in the face of AOL," says Jorge Gonzalez, who is promoting the program on his Web site, Zeropaid.com, a directory of free software.

But Frankel disagrees. "It's nothing more than a cute innovation," he says, adding that he and some friends came up with the idea over a dinner in Los Angeles. They had no malicious intention, he says, and they wrote the program in their free time.

As for AOL, it says it isn't troubled by the software because it doesn't affect outside advertisers. The Instant Messenger box has two advertising spots, and right now they are being used to promote AOL's service. "Since AIM does not have [paid] ads, this is a moot point," says Tricia Primrose, an AOL spokeswoman. Late Wednesday afternoon, she declined to say whether AOL would withdraw the software, but within an hour, the Nullsoft Web page containing the free program appeared to have been taken down.

This isn't Frankel's only escapade since becoming an AOL employee. In March, he and some Nullsoft colleagues wrote and posted Gnutella, a program similar to Napster that allows free trading of copyright music files over the Internet.

The timing was particularly embarrassing for AOL. It had recently begun trying to merge with Time Warner Inc., a major player in the record industry. After complaints from Time Warner Chairman Gerald Levin, AOL pulled the Gnutella download from the Nullsoft site, saying it was an "unauthorized freelance project."

Meanwhile, Frankel's prowess as a programmer has made him a virtual cult hero among computer programming enthusiasts. Winamp, the online music player he wrote, set the standard for the burgeoning MP3 movement. With Gnutella, he created a sort of super-Napster that continues to be widely distributed and seems to be virtually impossible to shut down.

Frankel's latest software was posted on a site called Firehose.net, which is registered to Nullsoft. It was on a secret page called Firehose.net/free, which wasn't indexed on the site's home page. The program -- called AIMazing, a play on the acronym AIM, for AOL's Instant Messenger -- was up for more than a week and could well take on a life of its own just as Gnutella has.

AIMazing was billed on the Web page as plug-in software for Winamp, the online music player that is the core of Nullsoft's business. However, when installed, a click on the button titled "configure" brought up a window that said, "AIMazing v0.4 makes AIM more fun to keep open. By Justin, Steve and Ian." The program said it was copyrighted by Frankel.

Once installed, the software creates a small icon at the bottom of the computer screen. Clicking on the icon causes a menu to pop up. When the user clicks "start plug-in" under "visualization options," the advertisements on Instant Messenger are replaced by white boxes. If the user plays music on the Winamp player, the boxes fill with little squiggly lines that jump and jerk along with the music.

Gonzalez, of Zeropaid.com, says he first heard about AIMazing on Sept. 12 and posted a notice on the "geek" bulletin board section of his site, which is a portal for free-software lovers. He says his site attracts about 10,000 visitors a day.

"It's a nifty plug-in if you hate banners or worship Justin," Gonzalez wrote on his site. A fan responded by comparing Frankel favorably to the founder of Napster: "Justin is 10x kewler than Shawn Fanning anytime."