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Dot-com dropouts share open-source love

Open-source programmers, many of them between jobs, gather at CodeCon to show off their latest projects and discuss peer-to-peer applications, encryption and digital law.

SAN FRANCISCO--Open-source programmers gathered this past weekend to share ideas and dreams about new methods for distributing encrypted data across the Internet and plans for a peer-to-peer wireless backbone.

Aside from a common love of computing, the crowd that was gathered in the dim confines of a nightclub at the edge of Multimedia Gulch here shared another trait: unemployment.

While many skilled programmers here were caught up in the recent dot-com frenzy, the collapse of the market has left most of them without work--and with a lot of free time.

"Right now you are in the worst time if you are trying to do what programmers were doing three years ago," said Brad Templeton, chairman of the digital-rights advocate Electronic Frontier Foundation.

The down economy has breathed new life into open-source software projects as unemployed software engineers pitch in. This weekend's CodeCon conference focused mainly on peer-to-peer projects, or ways to improve upon and expand Internet networks between groups of computer users.

"Peer-to-peer is where the exciting stuff is right now," said conference founder and organizer Bram Cohen, who said he too is looking for a job. Cohen's own project, BitTorrent, focuses on how to create large peer-to-peer networks that don't get bogged down in network bandwidth bottlenecks.

Another peer-to-peer application, called Reptile, attempts to create a quality barometer for Internet content. In its current incarnation, the program gathers stories that a user is most interested in, based on user recommendations and the "status," or reputation, of those who have recommended the stories.

Fen Labalme, project leader for OpenPrivacy.org, believes that eventually the Reptile application could be expanded to become a security program of sorts, one that could alert software programs to which data is trustworthy. If viable, such a system could become a peer-to-peer competitor for Microsoft's Passport, a building block of the software giant's .Net strategy.

"It's incredible to me how many intelligent people, who are working on great projects, are unemployed," said Labalme. Labalme and his business partner, programmer Kevin Burton, are both between jobs.

The conference's focus on the independent programmer, another much-bandied euphemism for unemployed, helped to draw nearly 200 hackers.

"Most of the major conferences are prohibited in price to actual programmers and technologists," said Len Sassaman, an independent communications security consultant and a conference organizer. "We didn't want business presentations, but actual code and demos."

Though almost all of the programs are developed as open-source projects, the conference is less about that, said Sassaman.

"Open source isn't as much of a central issue as a basis for a lot of the work being done," he said.

Paul Baranowski, project leader for the peer-to-peer anonymous browsing application, Peekabooty, likened the project phenomenon to business man going back to school during hard times.

"All the security guys are starting a project," said Baranowski, who is also newly "independent."

"They can hone their skills, network and be better off for future jobs."