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Netscape alumni to launch P2P company

After months of operating in stealth mode, reunited Netscape Communications alumni will launch their peer-to-peer content distribution company early next week.

After months of operating in stealth mode, reunited Netscape Communications alumni will launch their peer-to-peer content distribution company early next week.

The brainchild of several key veterans of Netscape--now a unit of AOL Time Warner--Kontiki will offer a way to speed downloads over the Internet, with a focus on video files.

Mike Homer, who was in charge of Netscape's portal efforts, is CEO of the start-up. Former Netscape CEO Jim Barksdale is lending a hand through his venture capital firm The Barksdale Group.

Netscape alumnus Wade Hennessey is Kontiki's chief technology officer. Also affiliated with the start-up is Netscape founder Marc Andreessen.

Kontiki will launch with beta testers that fall into two categories. One group consists of content companies that want to distribute large files, including video and video games, to consumers via the Internet. The second group comprises big corporations that distribute video to their employees.

Kontiki could not immediately be reached for comment.

Kontiki is the most prominent of several companies hoping to merge the technical lessons of Napster and Akamai Technologies into a new model of distributing content online.

A proliferation of start-ups is hoping to harness ordinary desktop computers to help send content more quickly and economically than typically happens on today's Web. These include Blue Falcon, Yaga, Open Cola, Peer Genius, Emikolo, WebEver and Red Swoosh.

The theory fueling the peer-to-peer content-distribution craze draws in part on the experience of Napster's rise and fall. If one person wants a given piece of content--a video, or even a document on an internal corporate network--it will cost money to store that content on a central server and for the bandwidth to send it to the person on the other end of the network.

But if that piece of content could be stored instead on a computer next door, it would be cheaper in storage and bandwidth costs for the content to be downloaded across that short connection.

The idea raises obvious questions of reliability and security. Desktop computers are not nearly as stable as the servers used to run corporate Web sites or even internal corporate networks. But the companies pursuing the peer-to-peer strategy are careful to note that their eggs aren't tied up in one digital basket.

A given piece of content would be stored in many places across a network of desktop computers, as well as in some more stable centralized location. If none of the desktop computers were near, or even on, then someone downloading the content would simply go to the central repository. If the desktops proved to be a stable, more efficient download source, then the download would point to one of those instead.

Kontiki and rival Red Swoosh, founded by engineers from the defunct Scour peer-to-peer service, each have this type of system in mind. Another version of the model has been outlined by executives at RealNetworks, who say they will use it inside the MusicNet music subscription service, which is slated to launch later this year.

All of this can work only if people owning the desktop computers are given some kind of incentive to participate, since it will be their storage space and bandwidth that is being used. What that incentive might be is up to the customers of Kontiki or Red Swoosh, who will ultimately have to give their own customers a reason to be a part of the network.

Sources familiar with Kontiki said the company had addressed the obvious pitfalls of peer-to-peer technology.

"There are lots of simple problems with P2P and, by and large, they've addressed those," said one source. "They're a bunch of maturing industry people with an eye to what it takes for big companies to take advantage of this technology. That includes things like asset management, knowing it's secure, knowing it can't be spoofed, and allowing for just-in-time needs."

With the firepower of Andreessen, Barksdale and the other Netscape alumni, Kontiki may have some advantage over its numerous competitors.

Andreessen has been involved in other infrastructure projects in recent years that could aid the start-up 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 in February netted a massive $435 million in its first round of funding, an astonishing amount considering 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.

Originally known as Zodiac Networks, Kontiki is funded in part by Benchmark Capital.