Nullsoft, which makes the popular Winamp digital music player, confirmed that it is building a file-swapping program, dubbed "Gnutella." Nullsoft said its version will offer improvements over Napster by reducing network traffic jams that can arise when thousands of large, compressed music files are traded online.
That feature could be music to the ears of MP3 fans on university campuses, who have seen the popular service banned by dozens of schools because of clogged bandwidth concerns. But it's unclear whether Nullsoft will be able to escape Napster's problems with the music industry.
The Recording Industry Association of America (RIAA) sued Napster in December, accusing the software maker of "facilitating piracy." The RIAA says the vast majority of files traded via Napster are illegal MP3s.
Thousands of free and copyright-protected songs can be downloaded from the Net, but finding tracks can be difficult. Napster provides a solution by allowing members to share song lists while they are online and to fetch files directly from each other's computers.
Nullsoft executives say its music software will make it difficult for university officials to block student access. While Napster's software requires music lovers to connect directly to Napster's computer system, Nullsoft's technology will let people build their own networks to swap files.
"We want our own private network and figured other people would, too," said Tom Pepper, a Nullsoft product manager.
"Napster is a centralized site for content, and the shortcoming of Napster is it's very easy to block access to universities," Pepper added. "What Gnutella does that's different is you connect to each other. You form a web of servers. Four people can connect to each other, they can connect to four others, and it spreads out to a huge tree."
Representatives from AOL and the RIAA could not be reached for comment.
The Nullsoft software could cause conflict within AOL, which will soon own music company Warner Music through its acquisition of Time Warner.
Pepper said that AOL gives Nullsoft leeway for creating technology but admits that the music software could ruffle some feathers. He added, however, that the product is a "labor of love," and unlike Napster, his company doesn't plan to make money off it. Nullsoft plans to release the "source code" for the product, allowing anyone to see and modify its original programming blueprints.
Nullsoft hopes to release a final version of Gnutella within a month for Windows, Linux and other operating systems. About 10,000 people downloaded a test version of Nullsoft's software today before the company pulled the Web page in the early afternoon.
The company put up the page to find testers, but it was deluged with computer users when popular Web site Slashdot.org mentioned the test version's availability. Pepper said Nullsoft pulled the page because the test version isn't ready for public consumption.
Pepper added that the software is not being promoted just for MP3 audio files but also as general software people can use to share a variety of file formats, including Microsoft Word, text and HTML documents.
But he admits a good portion of people will use it for swapping music.
"I'm sure it will raise a stink...But responsibility falls upon the users," he said. "We want to promote responsible use of the product."