AOL’s dark little secret

When AOL acquired Nullsoft last year, it probably didn’t expect them to develop software that wouldn’t fit the corporate line. However, last week, all that change, with Nullsoft’s release of Gnutella. With the release of this little piece of software, AOL unwittingly became a Napster competitor. What was surprising about this was not only the fact that AOL was now sitting on both sides in the music copyright battle (AOL is about to acquire Time-Warner, one of the co-plaintiffs in the RIAA lawsuit against Napster) but also how quickly it reacted.

Unfortunately for them, it wasn’t quickly enough and tens of thousands of people got their hands on the software and started redistributing it. While it will most certainly be used for stealing copyrighted material, this category of software interested me at first because of the indexing technology that was built in them. One of the great thing they do is index the files on your system and make them available to everybody else who’s connected to the same server as you are (in Napster’s case) or to the network in general. This could be significant if you were to build a search engine.

Imagine search engine software that would be installed on every web server out there. Not only would it index the pages for the server administrator, but it could also report back to a mainstream search engine. Many studies have now come out about most of the large search engines (Inktomi, alltheweb, Google, etc…) only managing to index a fraction of the web. With a service a la Gnutella, you could have every web site call back the search engine directory to post the changes they had. This could happen throughout the day and might work better than the spider technology currently being used by most search engines.

The other potential use for tools like Gnutella is as a mass corporate cooperation tools. Right now, when you fire off Gnutella, it connects to Gnutellanet, or pretty much anyone who’s using Gnutella at the time. As I just checked on it, there are 700 people connected. There is no central source or server, which means that a tool like Gnutella could be used to share files without having to worry about a central server go down.

For years Sun has been claiming that the network is the computer. With a tool like GNUtella my hard drive can be become a portion of a larger hard drive. I could have a marketing hard drive, a finance hard drive, a HR 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 as well as to your hard drive if you are traveling… 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 GNUtella like system, YOU would continually have the most updated versions of the files YOU author, without having to remember to separately save them.

At the same time, however, it seems to be lacking in a couple of critical areas: first of all, Gnutella could do with some sort of an authentication mechanism. That way, I would be able to create profiles and give access to certain files to certain people. For example, I would be able to mark a spreadsheet as accessible to the finance department while I would have a powerpoint presentation accessible to the marketing folks. The potentials are endless.

While Gnutella is considered a major threat to the music and movie industry, it is those corporate uses that interest me. I believe that, in the long run, those tools will make their way in corporate America and not just because someone wants to download the latest version of Santana’s new album or Julia Roberts’ new movie.

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