A group of programmers working at a small San Francisco software company owned by America Online may have started a revolution.
The company, Nullsoft, released a little computer program on its Web site in March, apparently without the knowledge of AOL corporate executives on the East Coast.
The program is called Gnutella. Despite its funny name, it may be one of the most important Internet technology developments since the search engine.
But within a day of Gnutella's public debut, AOL yanked the software from Nullsoft's Web site and issued a statement saying it was an "unauthorized freelance project."
What makes Gnutella so controversial is also what makes it so powerful: It lets people freely share computer files over the Internet.
It's similar to a program called Napster, featured in this column in November, which lets people share music files stored in a format known as MP3.
Napster has the record industry up in arms because it is widely used to illegally share copyrighted music.
Unlike Napster, Gnutella lets users share more than just music files. Any kind of file -- such as those that contain pictures, movies, Web pages or programs -- can be shared with others.
What's with AOL's reaction?
Consider that Napster Inc., the San Mateo, Calif. company that makes Napster, has found itself in legal hot water. It is being sued by a group representing major record companies, and it's not yet clear whether Napster bears legal liability for its users' activities.
Beyond that, remember that AOL is buying media giant Time Warner, which owns several record companies. The record industry is fearful that its entire business model is being threatened by programs like Napster and now Gnutella, which let people get music for free. A Warner music executive reacted with disbelief when he learned of Gnutella's release by an AOL company, according to a report in The Wall Street Journal.
But it really doesn't matter what AOL thinks of Gnutella. It's too late to stop it.
During its brief appearance on the Nullsoft site, it was quickly copied and posted elsewhere.
Computer programmers have "reverse-engineered" Gnutella to figure out how it works. That effort has led to the creation of Gnutella clones, which have nearly the same features of the original program. There are about 15 or 20 such clones, according to Gene Kan, a developer working on his own version, and keeper of a Gnutella Web site. The clones will soon be better than the original Gnutella, he said.
The Gnutella software, along with its clones, can be downloaded for free from http://gnutella.wego.com/
Here's how Gnutella works. Once a user sets up the software and connects to the Gnutella network, he or she enters a search term to see if someone else on the network has a computer filename containing that word.
For example, type in Austin Powers and after a few seconds, dozens of file names might appear, perhaps with music from the movie, film clips, still pictures of the movie's stars, or maybe even the movie's script.
Click on one of the files and it begins downloading to your computer. All the while, the software is receiving dozens of queries a minute from other Gnutella users, and perhaps letting them download files you have elected to share from your computer.
There are thousands of people using Gnutella at any one time. One day last week, there were some 2,500 computers connected, sharing about 2.5 gigabytes of files.
The Gnutella software is relatively crude. It can be difficult to figure out, and is geared more toward techies than everyday Internet users.
The searching feature doesn't let you narrow down what you are looking for, so searches can turn up all kinds of irrelevant or ambiguous hits.
And the system is inefficient. For example, if a Gnutella user searches for "Madonna," every other computer on the network is asked if it has a file with Madonna as part of its name. That's the equivalent of running through a library, and scanning every book on the shelf looking for a particular title, rather than going to the card catalog.
But that lack of a central control, or a master index, is also a key strength. With no main server or Web site, Gnutella users can't be knocked offline if a computer goes down.
That also means it's probably impervious to a legal challenge. There's no single company or Web site to sue for copyright law violations. Because of its grass-roots nature, Gnutella is virtually unstoppable.
By contrast, programs like Napster rely on a bank of central computers that keep track of file names of the music being shared by its users. Without those main computers, Napster won't work.
But what's important about Gnutella is not so much what it does today, but how it may shape the future of the Internet, according to Kan, the developer of a Gnutella clone called Gnubile.
The way Gnutella works is a major shift from the way people usually use the Internet. Today, we typically frequent major Web sites -- perhaps Yahoo! -- to find things, or maybe MP3.com to listen to some recent music.
Gnutella has the potential to let people bypass these types of Web sites that simply act as a conduit between Internet users and the content they want.
Kan said technology spawned by Gnutella will soon lead to real-time searches of the Internet that won't have dead links.
"Gnutella is an information search technology," Kan said.
New versions will soon allow searching through entire files on a Gnutella user's hard drive, instead of just a filename search, Kan said.
"That's something that's really going to convince our doubters. It's a technology, not just a product that's used to rip off someone's MP3s."
UPDATE: It looks as though a federal judge ruling will put an end to a popular service called My.MP3.com, featured in this column in February. The service allowed Internet users to "store" their entire music collection online, so the songs could be listened to anywhere via the Internet. The service verified a user had a copy of the music CD, then allowed him or to access an MP3.com-created copy of that CD. The Record Industry Association of America sued MP3.com for copyright infringment, and a New York district court judge on Friday issued a preliminary decision that sided with the record industry group.
Timothy C. Barmann covers technology for The Providence Journal. His column runs every other week on the More For Your Money page. Send him comments via e-mail at email@example.com or via U.S. mail, c/o The Providence Journal, 75 Fountain St., Providence, RI 02902.