Originally released in July, and updated substantially since then, the "Poisoned" file-swapping software allows connections to the hugely popular FastTrack system as well as several smaller networks. That means that for the first time Macintosh owners have direct access to the vast Kazaa network, which includes millions of people.
"The Macintosh has been very underserved, very neglected," said Julian Ashton, the Atlanta contract programmer who is leading development on the project. "That's why this is an ideal project."
Poisoned's quick rise during the past few months appears to pull the Macintosh closer to the Windows world, in which competition from free file-swapping sites is widely viewed as one oflike Apple Computer's own iTunes song store or RealNetworks' Rhapsody subscription service.
According to Download.com, a software aggregation site owned by News.com publisher CNET Networks, Poisoned has been downloaded more than 165,000 times in 10 weeks of availability there, making it the second most popular piece of Macintosh software on the site, behind fellow file swapper Limewire.
Several other peer-to-peer programs are available for the Macintosh that tap into FastTrack and eDonkey, the most popular Windows-based networks, but none has grown as quickly as Poisoned. Previously, the most prominent option was the Gnutella-based Limewire, a well-regarded piece of software that nonetheless tapped into a network far smaller than Kazaa's sprawl.
Some analysts sayfor simplicity and high-quality downloads, particularly among loyal Macintosh users, that could keep people paying for songs instead of searching for free content on Poisoned or any other service. According to Apple, by early November it had sold more than 17 million songs from its iTunes store, which by that time served Windows and Macintosh computers.
"If Apple is doing its job, they should be able to compete against free (services) based on quality and reliability," said Michael McGuire, an analyst with GartnerG2, a division of the Gartner research firm.
The Poisoned project is one of the first based on a long-running attempt by independent programmers to tap into the FastTrack file-swapping protocol--the technology underlying Kazaa, iMesh and Grokster--without the authorization of Kazaa or the technology's creators. That so-called Gift project is also the inspiration for Poisoned's name--"Gift" is the German word for "poison."
Several times in the past few years, the FastTrack creators have changed the encryption scheme that keeps outsiders from tapping into the proprietary file-transfer system, but the independent programmers have caught up each time. If FastTrack changes again, Ashton says he is confident that a new version of Poisoned can be developed quickly to tap back into the larger swapping service.
Currently, bugs in the software allow downloading only from the Kazaa network, while files can be uploaded to Gnutella, as well as the smaller networks OpenNapster and OpenFT, another variation based on FastTrack's features.
That lack of uploading capacity could help keep some Poisoned users out of the sights of the Recording Industry Association of America (RIAA), which is in the midst of a campaign of lawsuits against individuals alleged to have offered large number of copyrighted songs for download by others online.
It's not a perfect shield, however. Already, Poisoned users in the project's online discussion forums have reported that at least one Macintosh file swapper has been targeted by the RIAA's legal actions.
Ashton said he doesn't encourage use of the software for illegal actions. In fact, by day he works to create content protection technologies for media companies in California.
"I'm very much for digital rights management," he said. "I don't promote people distributing copyrighted material, but I do feel that people should be able to access any kind of network they want to."