The new release will dramatically expand the potential audience for the file-trading program, which the company says has already been downloaded more than 1 million times. ICQ, also owned by AOL, has had more than 73 million downloads.
The Aimster software lets people create limited, trusted groups of "buddies" with whom they can swap music and other files in much the same way that Napster's tens of thousands of members typically trade anonymously. The software can import the buddy lists produced by AOL Instant Messenger (AIM), creating its own buddy lists from those groups of people. The new version will also be able to read ICQ's buddy lists.
The Aimster software differs from other instant messaging programs that have attempted to work with AOL's services because it doesn't try to connect its members to AOL's central computers. Companies including Microsoft, iCast and Tribal Voice are lobbying federal regulators to force AOL to open its proprietary system and allow people on any instant messaging system to talk to each other across the boundaries of the different software.
AOL has blocked most other companies' software from communicating directly with its own. It doesn't have the power to do that with Aimster because all file trading and chat happens within Aimster's own networks. But the company says it is taking a hard look at the software.
"We are aware of the technology, and are looking into it," said AOL spokesman Andrew Weinstein.
The Aimster software is the latest innovation in file swapping, which is moving ahead even as the corporate world and the courts seek to rein it in. The software is based on Gnutella technology--which itself was developed at AOL-owned Nullsoft before the project was shut down at AOL's behest.
The software acts as a combined file-swapping and chat program, much like Napster itself. But it allows a computer to be searched only by people who are included in a selected buddy list instead of opening a hard drive to the world--as do most of today's file-swapping services.
Like Gnutella, the software can be used to trade any kind of file. Aimster has focused initially on music swapping because of the amount of attention it has received worldwide, but the company also means for the software to be used for such activities as collaborative research projects, said Aimster spokesman John Deep.
The initial release of the Aimster software also allowed searches of the broader Gnutella network. This was a one-way power, however; Aimster users could search Gnutella, but Gnutella users couldn't search computers running only Aimster. The company said this option wasn't well received by the service's users.
"We pulled that," Deep said. "Our users tend to be mainstream, and they told us they were confused."
Instead, the company has added the ability to search Scour's network and the sprawling mass of OpenNap Napster servers, a network of individuals who run Napster-like directories without being directly affiliated with the controversial music-swapping start-up.
The company concedes these moves could push it further into the legal firing line, as both Napster and Scour are being sued by the record industry for contributing to massive numbers of copyright violations online. But the company says it hasn't yet had legal problems.
"If it becomes a concern, then we'll try to respond," Deep said. "We're just an interface. We're not letting people serve (songs or other copyrighted material) into those networks."
The new version of Aimster that will draw on ICQ buddy lists is expected to be released at the end of next week, Deep said. The company will also look at adding support for other messaging programs such as Microsoft's MSN Messenger Service.