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Former Netscape duo reunites for P2P start-up

Jim Barksdale and Marc Andreessen are together again, working on a stealth company that hopes to merge ideas from Akamai and Napster, sources say.

A kind of Netscape Communications reunion tour is bringing Jim Barksdale and Marc Andreessen together again, as the two work with a stealth company that hopes to merge some of Akamai Technologies' approach with a Napster-like model, sources say.

Zodiac Networks, a start-up also led by fellow Netscape alumni Mike Homer and Wade Hennessey, is in the early stages of building a team of engineers for a peer-to-peer content distribution service, according to sources close to the company's plans.

Funded in part by Benchmark Capital, The Barksdale Group and several other Netscape alumni, the company hopes to target major media companies. Their idea, according to sources, is to distribute content to individual computer users more quickly than is typically possible.

Although details are slim on how Zodiac aims to do this, sources say the company is developing a model that takes a page from Akamai and peer-to-peer companies like Napster, with a bit of now-defunct PointCast's old push technology thrown in.

"I've seen a lot of proposals for peer-to-peer content networks in the last year, and I couldn't in the end say that any of them were a good idea," said Peter Christy, a Jupiter Research analyst.

Andreessen when reached declined to comment specifically on the start-up.

Content distribution networks need to be absolutely secure and trustworthy, Christy said. That's difficult to do when bringing individual computers into a network responsible for distributing major media content, he said. Christy said he was not familiar with Zodiac's plans, however.

Zodiac appears to be going down a path blazed most effectively so far by Akamai. That company and other rivals have been developing ways to eliminate or mitigate the bottlenecks developing inside far-flung Internet pathways and switching points as more people go online.

The Zodiac technology, according to sources, is believed to work as follows:

Individuals using the system might select what type of content they want to view, whether it's content from CNN or the latest Billboard top 10 hits. That content would be pushed to people's computers and stored there. It would be available to them, but also could be available to other nearby computer users who later decided they wanted the same content, sources say.

Like technology from Akamai, which tries to host content inside Internet service provider networks physically close to computer users, this would potentially greatly speed downloads and access times to popular content.

Zodiac appears to be on the leading edge of a next wave in peer-to-peer technologies, aimed at creating industrial-strength content-delivery services with the help of a model that so far has been used largely for trading music and video files of doubtful legality online.

At least one other coalition of programmers made up of several leading hosting, content-delivery and peer-to-peer companies is in the early stages of building a service along these lines. Dubbed QuMatrix, this effort has yet to go public with details of its service.

With the firepower of Andreessen, Barksdale and the other Netscape alumni, Zodiac appears poised to gain significant momentum directly out of the gates, however.

Andreessen has been involved in other infrastructure projects in recent years that could aid Zodiac immeasurably. Alongside his Loudcloud full-service Web infrastructure company, the Netscape co-founder is an investor in Sigma Networks, an infrastructure provider that links high-speed backbone and metropolitan fiber networks.

Sigma recently netted a massive $435 million in its first round of funding, an astonishing amount considering current market conditions.

Larger technology companies are increasingly interested in the potential for peer-to-peer services. Sun Microsystems Chief Scientist Bill Joy said late last month that his company is kicking off an effort to create a standard development platform for peer-to-peer services, dubbed Jxta.

Intel has also taken a lead in creating a peer-to-peer working group that hopes to develop standards for the young model.

News.com's Paul Festa and Corey Grice contributed to this report.