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FRAMINGHAM (07/17/2000) - Most famous among those giving this technique a go is SETI@home (The Search for Extraterrestrial Intelligence), which claims that about two million copies of its free program/screen saver have contributed more than 330,000 years worth of CPU time toward making that ultimate long-distance connection. Given those kinds of numbers, there's little wonder why startups such as Distributed Science and Popular Power are scrambling to deliver distributed computing services on a mass scale.

However, there is one question about this technique that remains as mysterious as ET's whereabouts: Can anyone really turn a buck off such a scheme?

"There is a large class of problems that can be adopted to this model," insists Nelson Minar, chief technology officer and co-founder of Popular Power. Minar and his company's angel investors are convinced that those computing problems - found in industries such a biotechnology, pharmaceuticals and finance - can be addressed more cost-effectively through massive distributed computing than through traditional means. And, more to the point, they are convinced that there is money to be earned by those who succeed in harnessing all of these idle PCs.

Let's grant that there will be customers and that those customers will be willing to pay. (I'm not convinced, but give them that one.)Will there be enough PCs? After all, Popular Power isn't looking for space aliens; it's looking to make a profit. So will enough people be motivated by the paltry handful of dollars - maybe US$5 or $10 per month - they stand to earn for participating?

Minar says fear not. "Intrinsically this idea is attractive to a lot of people," he says. "It's a little bit like recycling."

But even that's a double-edged analogy, given that making money from recycling has never been easy either.

Tapping into the PC mother lode - corporate networks during off-work hours - might be just the ticket to make this model successful, but here Popular Power and the like face an even more daunting challenge: security concerns.

Minar says he has that covered, too, in that Popular Power's client software plays quite safely in "a Java sandbox."

Perhaps I'm being too negative . . . yet again. Maybe these entrepreneurs will eventually convince even the most paranoid network executive that hiring out their PCs during off-hours poses no greater risk to the enterprise than electricity.

But who wants to play "Bet Your Job" on it?

Here's how to construct the URL: Take that naughty four-letter word that begins with "f" and make it past tense; in other words, add an "ed" at the end. Now, at the end of that six-letter combination, tack on the word "company." This gives you www.****edcompany.com.

My absence is no excuse not to write. The address is buzz@nww.com.

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