File-Sharing Coders Take AIM at AOL

BOSTON (08/10/2000) - The death knell was ringing for Napster Inc. in a San Francisco courtroom 15 days ago, or so thought about a dozen tired programmers huddled over their computers in upstate New York, hoping to code salvation for Napster's 20 million users.

In the appeals court two days later, MP3 file-sharing company Napster went on to win a reprieve from a judge's injunction that would've shut down the company's Web site. The self-styled "programming collective" creating Aimster -- a file-sharing application for America Online Inc.'s AOL Instant Messenger (AIM) -- didn't win any let-up in their development efforts.

"We've been racing to finish, because we thought they (Napster) would be shut down on July 26th. We basically said, 'Don't sleep,'" said Johnny Deep, spokesman for 15-person team at "We went into overdrive about two weeks ago."

Come Tuesday afternoon, user downloads of the Aimster application also went into overdrive. Forty-eight hours after Aimster became available on the team's Web site, the team was receiving six download requests per minute, Deep said, with the rate climbing. "It's like pandemonium here," he said, laughing. "We had to stay up all night just to baby sit the servers. They kept crashing."

Aimster is like Napster in some ways. Napster allows Internet-using music fans to search for and download MP3-format songs on the hard drives of other Napster users. The Recording Industry Association of America (RIAA), acting on behalf of the largest music labels, has sued Napster -- and other file-sharing companies -- for copyright infringement. RIAA asserts that Napster's servers holding the IP (Internet Protocol) addresses of computers in the Napster network makes the company liable for contributing to music piracy.

Napster's popularity (if not its financial and legal success) encouraged Aimster. "We've been watching Napster since they came out last May," Deep said.

"We were rooting for them, but we worried they would overwhelm us."

Unlike Napster, Aimster has no major financial backing, he said. The group is working out of their apartments and some modest space in the Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute "incubator" for startup companies in Troy, New York, 3,000 miles from Silicon Valley. The team doesn't even have a name for their company, if you can call them a company, according to Deep. "We're sort of loosely incorporated, and we don't have the fancy-schmatzy stuff we should have decided," he said. "We're not hung up on the money."

Other file-sharing programs like Freenet and Gnutella get around Napster's legal problems by operating in a peer-to-peer network, in which IP addresses are distributed with no central server and thus no single entity to attack legally.

Aimster ties AIM users into the Gnutella network, and each other. Aimster enables users to search and retrieve files from the hard drives of other Aimster users on their buddy list, as well as from Gnutella network computers.

The software does not, however, allow Gnutella users to search Aimster users' computers, a facet of security Deep emphasized. "Mainstream America doesn't want to share their hard drive with millions of users," he said. "This is the mainstream solution."

Aimster's debut has been a long time coming, Deep said. The group developed intelligent switching technology similar to Arrowpoint Communications Inc.'s switches, which can examine the protocol of data packets and then direct them to a target. Aimster started work 15 months ago, right around the time Gnutella and Napster first came to the attention of the Internet community. "Ours is a switching technology that you can't just come out with last night," Deep said.

The Aimster switching technology creates a new issue for AOL in its ongoing struggle with other companies to protect its instant messaging software AIM from what AOL calls privacy and security intrusions and what some of its rivals term competition based on an open standard. Programmers from Microsoft Corp., NovaWiz Inc. and other instant messaging companies have been dueling with AOL -- as they developed software to make their IM services work with AIM, AOL programmers would parry with new code to block interoperability.

Aimster, Deep claims, cannot be blocked so easily, because the software never touches AOL's servers. Packets "go through our switch, but not their servers," he said. "They can't block packets to a switch. They can't block us, not even if they wanted, not even for a moment."

Unless, of course, Aimster gets sued by AOL.

AOL may prove unable to block Aimster, said Jeff Nixon, managing partner of New York-based investment banking company Interactive Capital Partners. To date, Aimster hasn't worked with AOL to develop its software. Nixon's company has been giving some arms-length advice to the Aimster programmers, he said, warning of a need for the team to create a cordial and cooperative relationship with AOL.

"I think the great problem and the great opportunity they could have here is how they work with AOL," Nixon said. "I think it would be a mistake to work against AOL."

AOL, for its part, insists on keeping control of its software. "We will not permit attempts to use our systems or our software without our permission," said Andrew Weinstein, an AOL spokesman. "Providing our users with a safe, secure, reliable experience remains our top priority."

Additionally, AOL may become concerned about being dragged into intellectual property battles surrounding music file sharing, on top of other instant messaging issues and regulatory concerns surrounding its pending merger with Time Warner Inc.

AOL removed an MP3 search engine from its Nullsoft Winamp Web site Wednesday because the company was concerned that it couldn't distinguish between legal and pirated music, an AOL spokesman said. Aimster may touch a similar nerve.

[See "AOL Shuts Down Its MP3 Search Engine," Aug. 10.]"The interesting thing is, will AOL shut it (Aimster) down? Probably not," said Alan Weintraub, research director for market research company Gartner Group Inc., based in Stamford, Connecticut. "AOL's main concern is if AOL can be pointed at by any part of the legal community as proliferating copyright infringement."

Aimster, in Troy, New York, can be reached at AOL, in Dulles, Virginia, can be reached at

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