A new Napster-like program has sprung up online that piggybacks
on America Online's popular instant messaging service, limiting swaps of music and other files to close, trusted groups of people.
Launched yesterday, the Aimster
software draws on AOL Instant Messenger's (AIM) buddy lists to create a
group of people authorized to swap files with each other. The software then
uses Gnutella's open-source technology to make connections between people on
the buddy lists.
The developers say they are hoping to create a file-sharing system without the
uncertainty involved in opening personal computer hard drives to random
"We're trying to answer the criticisms of file-sharing programs that a
number of people have made--that if you're sharing files from your computer,
you want it to be personal, not with a million strangers," said John Deep, a
spokesman for the group of programmers that created the software.
In the process, the developers have selected one of the most popular pieces of
software online to target a pool of people. AIM has more than 61 million
registered users, according to AOL.
But trying to make the software work with AIM has its risks. AOL has consistently blocked other companies from piggybacking on its work, publishing protocols for the software but refusing to allow other message programs to connect with AIM users.
"We will continue to protect the privacy and security of our members and
other AIM users," AOL spokesman Andrew Weinstein said. "We do not
authorize attempts to use our system or our software without our permission."
The file-sharing world has exploded since Napster first hit the scene last
year, with millions of people engaged in trading MP3 music files, movies or other documents over programs such as Napster, Gnutella or Scour.net.
A large number of people also reportedly trade files using features in
instant messaging programs such as AIM and AOL's ICQ, but no numbers
are available on this practice. As no search feature is available for these
programs, they limit the scale of use for trading music.
The huge surge in file-swapping popularity has rocked the music industry,
which filed suit against Napster and Scour.net for contributing to
massive online piracy. Last month, a federal judge issued a temporary
injunction against Napster that would have forced it to close its doors, but
an appeals court has temporarily put that order on hold.
The Aimster developers, a company of 15 people based in Troy, N.Y., are
hoping to take off where Napster leaves off--if, in fact, the beleaguered
Silicon Valley firm is forced to shut down.
The software works by putting a "skin," or different graphical interface,
over AOL's instant messaging service. It then reads the Internet
address of each person in the buddy list as they come online, making their
computers a part of the Aimster search universe.
When a person conducts a search on Aimster, the query goes to each person on
the buddy list who is running the Aimster software and looks at each
person's hard drive. Searches also go out to the larger Gnutella network
through a connection provided by Aimster servers, but people from Gnutella
can't search computers running Aimster.
To download a file from another computer, that computer must have
the person requesting a file on its buddy list. That protects people from
random searches of their hard drives, the company says.
Aimster's Deep said the company doesn't interfere with AOL's servers or use the
company's software to send its own messages, and so it probably can't be
blocked. Companies such as Microsoft, Excite@Home and iCast have tried to
make their own message software interact with AIM but have been blocked by
To date, AOL has taken no action against Aimster.
The first version of the software isn't designed for corporate use and
won't work well behind firewalls, Deep said. Another release of the software
that can tunnel through firewalls will be released at the end of this month.