A group of software engineers who work for a unit of America Online (AOL) has released an early version of a program that mimics the operation of Napster, the popular Web software that allows for the free trading of music files, including pirated ones.
The team, which was also responsible for one of the most popular MP3 players, Winamp, released a preliminary version of "Gnutella" yesterday. Immediate demand for the product was so great that the group was quickly forced to take it offline, lest its own computers crash.
Napster has become one of the most popular online destinations in recent months because it allows computer owners to easily swap MP3 files. MP3 is a popular standard for listening to music on the Web. In recent days, more than a million MP3 files have been available on Napster. The site has spooked the record industry, which in December filed a suit to shut down the company, charging copyright infringement.
Unlike Napster, which essentially runs on a single computer, Gnutella was written to run on many different machines in a decentralised approach that makes it much more difficult to shut down. The software is also written to make it difficult for network administrators to block. Napster has been such a hit on college campuses that many universities are banning the program because it is clogging up their computer networks.
The new Gnutella software was developed by a team of young software programmers headed by Justin Frankel, who, as a college student, wrote the Winamp player program. Frankel's company, Nullsoft, was later bought by AOL, giving him a net worth exceeding $70m (£43m).
The Gnutella name is a reference to GNU, the licensing system under which Linux and other "open source" software is released to the public. The creators of Gnutella say a final version of their product will be released as free, open source software within a month.
Gnutella is likely to be one of several next-generation versions of Napster. Several Silicon Valley venture capital companies are considering Napster-like projects, but are wary of them because of the legal issue involved. Gnutella is likely to get a boost over all the others, though, because of the hero status that Frankel and the others behind the Winamp program have among MP3 buffs. The Gnutella project is entirely non-commercial.
People involved in Gnutella denied it was written with MP3s in mind, and said the software could be used to share any sorts of files. "This was actually designed to exchange recipes," insisted Tom Pepper, a product manager at Nullsoft.
Others who have actually used the program scoffed at the claim. "This is clearly an MP3 sharing tool," said one early user of the software. Already, several hundred gigabytes of pirated MP3s are available on computers connected via Gnutella, this person said.
Associates of the team of young programmers who worked on Gnutella said the engineers are free spirits who essentially work on whatever projects they wish, without the advance knowledge or approval of those higher up at AOL. Indeed, Gnutella had been a secret until this week.
But the project isn't likely to win many friends for AOL at Time Warner, with whom the Internet service provider (ISP) is planning to merge. This is because Time Warner gets much of its profit from its music operations.
The Gnutella Web pages yesterday weren't shy about invoking AOL. Several of the pages claimed that all the materials on them were copyrighted by "Nullsoft, a subsidiary of America Online". Another page said "See? AOL CAN bring you good things!"
A spokesman for AOL couldn't be reached for comment about the matter. The Record Industry Association of America (RIAA), the trade group that sued Napster, declined comment.
The Gnutella Web sites were flooded yesterday after news of the software was released on Slashdot.net, a popular site with Linux users and other computer buffs. Pepper said that the early version of the program was no longer being made available, but that the final software should be ready for general release in a month's time.
Take me to the MP3 special.