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P2P stars trade up to new gigs

Having helped spark the file-trading revolution, some stars of the peer-to-peer networking world are swapping their original anarchistic philosophies in favor of capitalism.

Having helped spark the file-trading revolution, some stars of the peer-to-peer networking world are swapping their original anarchistic philosophies in favor of capitalism.

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Napster co-founder Sean Parker--perhaps best known for writing some of the ill-fated company's most --is launching a new company called Plaxo on Tuesday, focused on helping Microsoft Outlook users keep their address books up to date.

Ian Clarke, creator of the still-active Freenet, has opened the doors on a second business venture, this one aimed at letting him and a co-founder write whatever software they dream up and bring it quickly to market. The company's first project is a set of tools for Web developers.

"Contrary to a lot of public opinion, I think we were all pretty business-minded from the beginning," Parker said, talking about the young wave of programmers who launched the first round of file-swapping products. "A lot of the ideas from the peer-to-peer era are finding their way into this generation of products."

Peer-to-peer networks tie individual PCs into a massively connected system that offers a powerful tool for storing and distributing digital content. Napster provided the first major proof of concept for the architecture, signing up millions of people who came together to trade unauthorized copies of music on its network.

But the system was effectively stifled by music industry lawsuits?-a cloud that has hung over all its numerous imitators. Faced with costly litigation, many peer-to-peer services have shut down or cling to subsistence businesses based primarily on advertising.

By contrast, applications that cater to business customers have received a much warmer welcome, drawing many of the original figures behind the biggest peer-to-peer services into businesses that pose far less risk to the established order. Much of Scour's team now offers peer-to-peer content distribution services to entertainment companies through a company called Red Swoosh. Clarke's earlier company, Uprizer, continues to offer similar content distribution products, although he is no longer involved in its day-to-day management.

In this sense, the young programmers are taking a to the technology as the one they helped trail blaze several years ago.

File-swapping services such as Kazaa and Morpheus remain stronger than ever, attracting millions of users every week looking for access to free music, movies and software. But business applications such as those that let employees share files or work on files together are more quietly gaining ground, extending peer-to-peer computing model well beyond simple file-trading.

Parker, 22, isn't quite as much a household name as fellow Napster co-founder Shawn Fanning, but he was on board almost from the beginning. Fanning wrote much of the original Napster software while in college. Parker joined the project in mid-1999, and they moved to California together to start Napster as a company.

Parker's public presence at Napster diminished somewhat after the company's legal battles began, and the record industry subpoenaed early company memos written by him that indicated the company was well aware that the service was being used to pirate music.

The Napster alum's new product is a simple e-mail contacts management tool designed to update and maintain Microsoft Outlook's contacts database. The software plugs unobtrusively into Outlook and sends people who are in the contacts database a message requesting updated information.

People who get the update e-mail can send back an ordinary e-mail providing whatever information they want. Plaxo runs this through a natural language translation service and plugs the information directly into the correct slots in Outlook.

If two people use Plaxo, the software will automatically update both people's contacts database if information changes, without a manual e-mail being sent. The product also allows members to access their Outlook contacts database online.

Parker's company is backed in large part by a $2 million round of venture funding last February, led by Sequoia Capital. The product will go live Tuesday and will be distributed freely. He declined to discuss the company's potential plans to generate revenue, but did say Plaxo would not sell or otherwise use any member's contact information without permission.

The company already has a few competitors in the market. GoodContacts and AddresSender, among others offer services that are roughly similar to Plaxo.

Clarke's new company is dubbed

"Basically the goal is to create an organization which can rapidly bring diverse products to market," Clarke said. "Through my experience with Uprizer, I saw that you can come up with an interesting idea, solve an interesting problem, but the cycle to come up with the next interesting idea is too long."

Cematics will do consulting work to help pay the bills in its early days, Clarke said. Its first product, already available, is a tool to help Web developers automate changes across sprawling sites.