Distributed computing loses luster

Popular Power, one of a host of start-ups hoping to capitalize on the collective number-crunching abilities of the Internet, throws in the towel.

Popular Power, one of a host of start-ups hoping to capitalize on the collective number-crunching abilities of the Internet, has thrown in the towel.

San Francisco-based Popular Power embodied the business model behind "distributed computing," using computers' spare processing power to tackle programming jobs. The concept, only recently emerging as a way to make money, has been around for years and was popularized by the SETI@home project that let people use a screensaver to search for radio signals from extraterrestrials.

The wave of start-ups hoped pharmaceutical companies, computer graphics studios and others would pay to have their calculations done on thousands of computers across the Internet instead of buying large supercomputers of their own. Distributed computing companies would pass along some of the payments from customers to the people who owned the computers doing the work.

Popular Power had hoped to offer members of its network rebates, coupons or discounts to encourage people to donate their processing power. Now, the company will continue only with its voluntary, nonprofit projects such as simulating the human response to the influenza virus.

"Popular Power is no longer in business," read a note posted to the Popular Power Web site by co-founders Marc Hedlund and Nelson Minar. "We are continuing to run our nonprofit projects and will do so for as long as we are able."

The company laid off all 14 employees and now is selling its assets, Popular Power said in a statement Monday.

The company had raised $1.6 million in an early investment round, but was unable to raise more, Hedlund said in a statement. "We were attempting to raise funding in a notoriously tight venture market," he said.

The company had won seed money but was trying to secure first-round financing.

Other distributed computing companies include United Devices, founded by SETI@home leader David Anderson; Entropia; Parabon Computation; and Applied MetaComputing. In addition, free e-mail and Internet access company Juno Online Services has added a distributed computing component to its business.

Parabon offers its members a $100 daily drawing and a monthly $1,000 drawing. The more days a member donates processing power, the better the odds of winning the $1,000, the company said.

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