Grid-computing software hitchhikes on Kazaa

Software that will set up a network built from users' hard drives and bandwidth has been quietly bundled into the Kazaa file-sharing program owned by Australian holding company Sharman Networks and may also be distributed with other file-sharing programs.

Los Angeles advertising software and design company Brilliant Digital Entertainment Inc. plans to use the Altnet network software that is bundled with Kazaa to build a distributed supercomputer for tasks such as weather-mapping and genome-cracking. It also plans to use the network as an alternative file-serving system for Internet ads or other content.

The Altnet software has been downloaded along with Kazaa's file-sharing software about 20 million times, according to Brilliant. Most people don't realize Altnet is present if they installed the programs together, Brilliant Chief Executive Officer and President Kevin Burmeister acknowledged.

"I don't know how happy people are going to be, being backdoored," said Neal Goldman, research director for Yankee Group, in Boston. "It didn't feel like it was aboveboard."

People downloading Kazaa for file trading may not realize that they also downloaded the Digital Projector media player from Brilliant. Digital Projector is necessary to play Brilliant's 3D promotions and advertisements for music. Along with a piece of software called Altnet Secureinstall, the media player also makes up the platform for the Altnet network, according to Brilliant. Both are distributed as part of the software bundle for file-sharing programs such as Kazaa and StreamCast Networks Inc.'s Morpheus, according to Brilliant.

Users often skip reading the terms of service when installing software, and most people probably don't know that they installed Brilliant's software when they set up Kazaa on their PCs, Burmeister said.

"Before it's activated, there will be full disclosure," Burmeister said. "In the interest of full disclosure, it will spawn a (terms of service) window allowing people to opt in."

The terms of service for using Brilliant's software, which must be agreed to for installation, grant Brilliant "the right to access and use the unused computing power and storage space on your computer/s and/or Internet access or bandwidth for the aggregation of content and . . . distributed computing," without the right of compensation.

Perhaps surprisingly, Brilliant plans to incorporate digital rights management from Microsoft Corp. into its separate network, allowing antipiracy technology to sail into home computers in the wake of Kazaa, a program the music and film industry considers a piracy threat.

"End users that propagate their own content using Kazaa won't be affected," by the digital rights management software, Burmeister said. The digital rights management software will be used to build a system for micropayments through Altnet, allowing content owners to get paid a small amount each time their property is distributed through the network.

Users will also be compensated for their participation in Altnet, but the company hasn't yet figured out how, he said. "It will be incentive-based," Burmeister said, noting that it will be more compensation than simply being allowed to continue file-sharing with Kazaa.

Grid computing harnesses the unused processing power of computers in a network to analyze information in small chunks. A data set is broken into pieces and scattered through the Internet to home computers. The participating computers crunch the data, and then the processed bytes are sent back to the central project server. Companies using this model, pioneered by Project SERENDIP (The Search for Extraterrestrial Radio Emissions from Nearby Developed Intelligent Populations), have been looking to capitalize on the idea for commercial research, such as analyzing genome information for pharmaceutical companies.

The question of compensation is key to the ultimate success or failure of Brilliant's plan.

"The issue for companies like Kontiki (Inc.) and CenterSpan (Corp.) is convincing people that they want to be a distribution point," Goldman said, referring to other companies that are looking at distributed or grid computing. "If I'm the consumer, what's my incentive to let these guys make a buck off my computer?" Without enough compensation, users will bail out, he said. And Brilliant may not be in a good financial position to pay its subscribers to deliver its content.

Brilliant has been struggling financially, warning investors in its annual report filed Monday that without a quick boost in revenue, the company may have to cease operations. Before filing its annual report Monday after the market close, its stock on the American Stock Exchange traded at about US$0.13 per share. On Tuesday it briefly shot up to $1.30 per share before settling in at about $0.59 per share.

Free services looking to radical solutions to their money crunches haven't fared well with approaches such as advertising-supported Internet access, pay-to-surf Web sites, and distributed computing.

Ad-supported Internet service provider Juno Online Services Inc. turned to the idea of using its subscribers' computers for distributed computing when the advertising market disintegrated in 2001.

Juno altered its terms of service to incorporate the distributed computing initiative in February 2001, potentially requiring its free subscribers to leave their computers on at all times, and for their computers to automatically dial in to Juno's servers in order to deposit processed data. Though voluntary, Juno's plan proved unpopular and was never implemented.

Sharman could not be reached for comment.

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