Juno to harvest wasted PC power

The ISP devises a way to help underwrite its free service: Have subscribers leave their computers running 24 hours a day and sell the excess processing power.

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Juno to harness people's PC power
Charles Ardai, CEO, Juno Online Services
Internet service provider Juno Online Services has devised a way to help underwrite its struggling free service: have subscribers leave their computers running 24 hours a day and sell the excess processing power.

The plan announced Thursday to create a "virtual supercomputer" is indicative of the hard times being felt by purveyors of free Internet service.

Juno would harness subscribers' unused microprocessing cycles and hard drive space and sell it to research institutions and corporations that require intensive computation power.

The practice, known as distributed computing, is already done on a volunteer basis by astronomy buffs supporting a project called SETI that is probing for extraterrestrial life.

In Juno's case, subscribers will download software that when activated will discreetly perform computations when the machines are idle. Subscribers' computers will then automatically send information back to Juno's supercomputing clients when they first log onto the Internet.

"It's only going to be running when they're not actively using the computer," said Charles E. Ardai, Juno's chief executive officer. "The idea is to make it invisible. It shouldn't slow down their machines because it only kicks in when their screen-saver turns on."

Ardai said the company has not secured any deals yet to sell its supercomputing services, but he envisions enrolling biotechnology companies as customers.

Demand for such computational power is expected to grow rapidly as the budding field of bioinformatics takes off. Bioinformatics, which requires massive number crunching, is the use of computerized databases to help scientists decipher genetic information needed to combat disease and prolong life.

At first, the Juno Virtual Supercomputer Network will be tested using volunteers.

But Ardai said the company may eventually require participation from subscribers of the free service who already agree to have a portion of their computer screens dominated by advertisements.

"We may well make it mandatory for our free users," said Ardai. "If you want the service for free, these are the things we have to do to make the money back."

Subscribers to Juno's free Internet service who do not wish to participate in the distributed computing network can sign up with any number of Juno's fee-based online services, Ardai said.

Juno advertises heavily on its free Internet access service but its hybrid business model also offers high-speed Internet access at a cost. Founded in 1996, the company has 842,000 paid subscribers, but more than 3 million people use its services. Juno has yet to show a profit.

Only NetZero, Juno and BlueLight.com remain as the major free Internet service providers.

Juno has continued to build its subscriber base. In July, the New York-based company gobbled up two competing free Internet access providers that failed primarily for lack of advertising revenue. After Freewwweb went bankrupt and ceased operations, it began referring its 700,000 subscribers to Juno. The company also took in some 250,000 non-paying customers after the demise of Worldspy.com.

In December, online search portal AltaVista cut off some 3 million users from its free service.

Juno hopes to avoid a similar fate.

Ardai called the supercomputing venture "a way to derive new forms of revenue from assets we already have."

Shares of Juno finished regular trading Thursday at $2.22 on the Nasdaq Stock Market. The stock is down from its 52-week high of more than $30 a share.

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